Article Summary: Kapur (2016) Productive Failure, Productive Success, Unproductive Failure, and Unproductive Success


To consider tradeoffs between learning and performance and examine instructional strategies that support both.

Productive Failure

Kapur researches an instructional strategy called productive failure. Productive failure encourages learners to create incorrect or incomplete solutions, get stuck during problem solving, or otherwise fail to produce a right answer when they first start learning a new procedure. The underlying theory is that this strategy encourages students to try to apply their prior knowledge to the problem, recognize whether it works, and identify the new knowledge they need to complete the solution. Once learners have gone through this process of failing, they are primed to fill in the gaps in their knowledge through instruction. A critical feature of productive failure is that the failure during the problem-solving phase is followed by productive learning during instruction, called the consolidation phase.

Productive vs. Unproductive

The two dimensions that Kapur examines in this review article are learning (productive vs. unproductive) and performance (failure vs. success). For learning, a productive instructional strategy is one that teaches learners the problem solving procedure so that they remember it long-term and apply to novel problems. That is, productive instruction produces retention and transfer. Key features that make learning productive when teaching problem solving procedures are

  • Allows the learner to determine how prior knowledge applies
  • Helps the learner to identify gaps in their knowledge
  • Fills gaps with conceptual knowledge
  • Does not overload the student’s cognitive capacity, but doesn’t necessarily minimize cognitive load

Failure vs. Success

Failure vs. success, in this context, refers to learners’ performance on learning activities. For example, if you give practice problems in class, do students complete them correctly? In contrast, long-term performance and knowledge is determined by productive or unproductive learning.

In general, more guidance or scaffolding during activities is associated with more success. These successes sometimes translate to better grades on homework and tests of declarative knowledge. They are effective in the short-term. However, when comparing students who failed and those who succeeded on learning activities, there is often no difference in procedural knowledge. In addition, students who fail to create correct solutions AND consider more possible (but wrong) solutions, have better conceptual knowledge than those who succeed or fail and consider only a few possible solutions. So if learners are going to fail, they should fail lots.

Unproductive Success

Unproductive failure is bad, obviously. There’s some evidence that productive failure produces better conceptual knowledge than productive success, but both are productive. What about unproductive success? If I tell you exactly how to solve a problem, you are going to be very successful at solving that problem. But you won’t learn much about why that solution is effective (even if I tell you why it’s effective, the research suggests it won’t stick). Thus, you won’t be able to solve problems that are very different from the highly scaffolded problems I’ve given you. Highly scaffolded instruction, therefore, should be reserved for cases where declarative and procedural knowledge are important, but conceptual knowledge is not.

Why this is important

This review article considers the four possible outcomes of instruction. Though there are limited cases in which short-term success is more important than productive learning, Kapur argues that the goal of instruction should be to maximize productive learning, even at the expense of success. A key conclusion is that productive learning does not rely on successful completion of learning activities. It might even be most productive to experience many incorrect or incomplete solutions before learning the canonical solution.

Kapur, M. (2016). Examining productive failure, productive success,
unproductive failure, and unproductive success in learning, Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 289-299, doi: 10.1080/00461520.2016.1155457

For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.

One thought on “Article Summary: Kapur (2016) Productive Failure, Productive Success, Unproductive Failure, and Unproductive Success

  1. Pingback: Article Summaries: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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