How Can we Make Failure Productive & Avoid Unproductive Success in Learning Design?

Many times, learning professionals and stakeholders tend to rely on common practices or fads rather than evidence in their design approach. One of these design approaches is providing content and then adding quizzes at the end with a pass or fail outcome. The question is whether scoring high (i.e., improved performance) means learning has happened (i.e., sustainable learning).

Knowing what empirical studies say about these design approaches can lead to more informed decisions.

Let’s see what research says about them:

Unproductive Failure:
In unproductive failure, learning is optimized neither in the short term nor in the long term. For example, pure discovery with no guidance may not lead to any learning to solve problems or understand the concepts. In this design, an exploratory approach is used, and learners are left to figure out the concepts by doing activities. They do not receive any kind of instruction or content. It is mainly feedback from the learning activities that are supposed to help them learn.

Sometimes, you might want to come up with a design that is excitingly innovative. Your design includes giving a set of well-crafted questions and learning activities with feedback. And your goal is to make learning happen from the feedback. You are completely against giving any content and you think this is really engaging.

However, this design relies purely on the topic and the prior knowledge of your learners. There is substantive empirical evidence against unguided or minimally guided instruction for novel concepts as this can lead to more cognitive load. Learners need guidance when dealing with novel information.

Productive Failure:
In this design, as the name implies, you let learners fail at the beginning, but this failure is to their benefit. It includes two phases: (1) problem-solving, and (2) consolidation. In the first phase, learners are engaged in generation of ideas to solve a problem or complete a learning activity, but they may not perform well (or fail). However, in the next phase by reflecting and organizing, or receiving instruction, they can consolidate their learning.

In this case, learners might feel they have failed or didn’t do well, however, their learning is retained for a long term. In productive failure, learning happens from the content provided after the activities.

Productive success:
In productive success, materials are designed to optimize performance in the shorter term and maximize learning in the longer term. Problem-based learning or designing activities that aim to improve performance and sustain learning by solving problems is associated with productive success.

In this type of design, learners are able to complete learning activities or solve problems successfully during the learning session and retain the knowledge for a long time. This design is opposite the productive failure in which learning happens from the instruction, whereas, the goal of productive success is to learn through well-designed problem-solving activities. However, learners are guided to solve the problems.

Unproductive Success:
In this type of design, illusion of learning might happen as learners might do well in the short term. They think they learned but, actually, they do not have a full understanding of concepts and procedures in the long term. In this design, too much content is provided with the goal of helping learners understand all the concepts, but studies have found that this type of design is not effective for learning in the long term.

Does this sound familiar?

Of course, note that the decision to use this design relies mainly on the instructional goals. If the goal is acquisition of information, then unproductive success could be a good choice. Here, expository instruction in the form of lectures or online presentations can be effective.

The Upshot

As you notice, by and large, the design choices rely on the instructional goals and learner characteristics (i.e., novice or expert). Most important, we cannot place these design possibilities in a dichotomy of unguided and heavily guided direct instruction. A combination of these designs might be a sounder design choice.

The point is simple. A learning designer does not have to swing from one extreme to the other. You should consider the prior knowledge and expertise level of your learners.

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