In the first of our Innovation Speaks series, Richard N. Aufmann, author and educator at Palomar College, sat down with us to discuss how the concept of Productive Struggle applies to Quantitative Reasoning in mathematics.

  1. How would you explain Productive Struggle?

Productive Struggle is a commitment to a goal—to solve a problem (homelessness, for instance), or to learn a skill (play golf, play the piano or learn to code). There must be an acceptance that the goal will take time to reach and that small successes are motivating enough to continue. To commit to Productive Struggle, the end result must have value—a personal reason to accept the challenge.


  1. How do you encourage students to embrace this approach to thinking?

Students already have this approach to thinking. They engage in the process any time they think the time investment is worth the outcome. We see this more generally in skill development, such as being able to achieve different levels in a video game.  The observable outcome is easily measured—for instance, better tennis serves, more hits in softball and more pars in golf. When the focus is on Math, students are less willing to embrace a Productive Struggle because the induced goal (a curriculum requirement) is not perceived to be worth the struggle.


  1. How does Productive Struggle help students take Quantitative Reasoning (QR) beyond the course and into the real world?

Productive Struggle is a problem-solving strategy. It’s worth knowing so that it can be applied to challenging problems. The challenge of Productive Struggle in QR is convincing students that certain concepts (simple interest versus compound interest) are worth the struggle.  Although understanding interest is very important, the application of the concept is frequently removed from the student’s current situation. The student is not investing money today.


  1. What advice do you have for faculty who may see this as a large leap from QR?

Productive Struggle applies to faculty as well. We must approach QR with an acceptance that the goal will take time (and is worth the time) and that small successes are enough motivation to continue.  We must present topics in a way that engage students to the point they are willing to accept the struggle.  Remember, the unknown doesn’t have to be scary. The learning process is all about discovery.