Productive failure as an instructional approach to promote future learning

Naomi Steenhof*, Nicole N. Woods, Pascal W.M. van Gerven, Maria Mylopoulos

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

24 Citations (Web of Science)


Productive failure is an instructional approach that requires learners to struggle as they attempt to generate solutions to problems before, rather than after, receiving direct instruction on a targeted concept. Studies demonstrate that productive failure prepares students for later learning of new, related knowledge. Our study explored the effectiveness of productive failure as an instructional intervention in health professions education with respect to (a) acquisition and application of a novel concept, and (b) learners’ preparation for future learning of new, related content. Forty year-one students enrolled in the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the University of Toronto were randomly assigned to a productive failure (i.e. attempt to generate solutions before receiving instruction) or direct instruction only learning condition. After a practice phase, participants completed a series of tests designed to measure knowledge acquisition, knowledge application, and preparation for future learning (new learning is required for successful problem solving). As expected, no difference in performance was seen between participants on the acquisition and application tests. However, participants in the productive failure condition outperformed those in the direct instruction condition on the preparation for future learning test. These results emphasize the role of struggle in learning and support the theory that engaging students in solving problems that are beyond their abilities can be a productive exercise in failure. The results suggest that productive failure assists learners in acquiring the conceptual knowledge needed to facilitate learning in the future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)739-749
Number of pages11
JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
Issue number4
Early online date2019
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019


  • Adaptive expertise
  • Clinical reasoning
  • Innovation
  • Pharmacy education
  • Preparation for future learning
  • Productive failure
  • TIME

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