Another failure for Productive Failure

A new study by Valentina Nachtigall, Katja Serova and Nikol Rummel has failed to find evidence for the productive failure hypothesis.

Briefly, advocates of productive failure suggest that a period of unsuccessful problem solving prior to explicit instruction is superior to explicit instruction from the outset. They suggest unsuccessful problem solving may activate prior knowledge, make students more aware of their knowledge gaps and prepare them for recognising deeper structure during subsequent explicit teaching.

There have been a number of studies that seem to show a result in favour of productive failure. However, in the paper I wrote with my supervisors based upon my PhD research, we note that these studies have potential limitations. In fact, in this paper, I report very similar findings to the new study.

The new study involved tenth grade students in Germany who attended classes at a university to learn – in an oddly iterative touch – about experimental design in the social sciences (Experiment 1) and causal versus correlational evidence (Experiment 2). The study follows a quasi-experimental design. Similar to my study, a productive failure group attempted problem solving prior to receiving explicit teaching, whereas a direct instruction group receive explicit teaching prior to problem-solving. Outcomes on a post-test were then compared.

Contrary to the expectations of the researchers, but not to mine, neither experiment found a productive failure effect. In fact, the first experiment found in favour of the direct instruction group, including on an analysis of a subset of questions that assessed ‘deep feature recognition’. In the second experiment, there were no significant differences between the two groups.


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