George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Difference Between Productive Struggle and Spinning Your Wheels

Identifying when students are repeating problems but not actually progressing towards mastery can help educators refine their instruction.

March 12, 2020
Toa55 / iStock

Teaching students to persevere when facing a challenge is important, writes former middle school math and science teacher Neil Heffernan, but it is also crucial to know how to distinguish between productive persistence and wheel-spinning, a state where students repeat an attempt at a skill without ever reaching mastery. It’s a fine line.

In EdSurge’s “Persistence Is Not Always Productive: How to Stop Students From Spinning Their Wheels,” Heffernan, now a computer science professor, says if a student does not understand a concept but continues to focus on it, valuable time is squandered. “You don’t need to give students too many of the same type of problem—chances are, they’ll either get it in the first few or they won’t, in which case adding more is just a waste of time,” he writes. 

Not only can continuing to pursue a problem waste time and effort, but it can actually be harmful, Heffernan argues. “We may make the same mistake over and over again until it becomes a habit. And students who continually find their efforts don’t lead to improvements may become less likely to persist over time.” 

What should an educator do? First, identify when your students are spinning their wheels. If a student is repeating a problem, ask if they are grasping the concept or is this wheel-spinning. 

In a study of more than 123,000 homework assignments, researchers defined mastery “as correctly completing three problems in a row," and wheel-spinning as "failing to gain mastery even after trying on 10 different problems (and getting feedback on each one).” Once a teacher determines that a student is wheel-spinning on a particular concept, they can offer additional instruction or, if the entire class is struggling, reteach a topic. 

Heffernan’s team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute developed a free tool for math teachers to detect wheel-spinning. ASSISTments, gives students and teachers feedback on assignments and data about where students are spinning their wheels. They can use the feedback to modify instruction or focus on a specific objective. 

Letting kids try things several times makes sense—and encouraging them to persist can be productive—but only if you can determine whether they are actually making progress on solving the problem. “The goal is not to remove the obstacles from learning,” Heffernan writes. “Rather, we want to make sure the right kinds of obstacles are in place—neither obstacles that discourage learning because they wrongly presume the child has already absorbed preliminary concepts, nor obstacles that pose no challenge.”

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