Request a Demo

Not ready yet? No problem.


Productive failure posits that when challenged to generate solutions in unknown territory a student has to rely on effectively using what little prior knowledge they may have.  In the process they critique, refine and cement established concepts, identify gaps in their knowledge, recognize the applicability of the information, and obtain more value from instructions that may follow.

There is a widespread assumption that effective learning hinges on the use of appropriate teaching methods and support structures that accommodate different learners. While teaching methods are heavily discussed in pedagogical communities, less is known and discussed about support structures that should be provided to learners. There is an assumption that structure and sequential learning are fundamental blocks to obtain knowledge, especially novel knowledge – with a typical flow from introducing and practicing the basics, testing, building on older concepts, advance the learning, solve slightly more difficult problems, and continue. It is, therefore, not surprising that, when learning something new, learners are often not able to solve problems based on concepts not yet introduced, are unable to collaborate effectively, have difficulty envisioning applications and have pre/misconceptions about certain phenomena. This is typically resolved by providing help and assistance in these areas of difficulty as without support, students are unlikely to learn and will “fail”.


In his seminal works, Kapur, has argued that learners can benefit from instructors withholding help and encouraging failing. Termed productive failure, the principle aims to establish the value of difficulty, uncertainty and struggle in initial learning. “Productive failure is a learning design that affords students opportunities to generate representations and solutions to novel problems […], followed by consolidation and knowledge assembly where they learn the targeted concept.”

The hypothesis is that when challenged to generate solutions without cognitive scaffolds, a student has to rely on effectively using (and understanding) what little prior knowledge they may have to devise solutions (correct or incorrect). In the process they critique, refine and cement established concepts, identify gaps in their knowledge, recognize the applicability of the information, and obtain more value from instructions that may follow.


Productive failure, embodies four core learning mechanisms: a) activation and differentiation of prior knowledge in relation to the targeted concepts, b) attention to critical conceptual features of the targeted concepts, c) explanation and elaboration of these features, and d) organization and assembly of the critical conceptual features into the targeted concepts. 

As a learning design, productive failure is comprised of two phases: Phase 1: A generation and exploration phase where the students are given opportunities to create and explore the affordances and constraints of multiple representations and solution methods, and Phase 2:  A consolidation phase where the generated solutions are organized, assembled and established.


To work effectively, the activity must involve working on complex problems that challenge but do not frustrate the learner and allow for different methods to arrive at a solution. This is followed by opportunities for explanation and elaboration and the opportunity to compare and contrast the parts of the different failed solutions that were correct and those that were incorrect.


The aim of using productive failure is to design for early failure to minimize failure in the long-term. This design attribute has encouraged researchers to assess the effectiveness of productive failure in professions like medicine and engineering where deep understanding, long-term retention, and transferability of knowledge is crucial and where errors may be costly. In these fields, there is an immense pressure for perfection from the start– in learning the information, and practising the skills. Since even the most seasoned professional can make a mistake, oversight committees agree that students must be prepared to understand the type of errors that can occur, their consequences, and learn mitigation and management strategies.


Medical students recognize the value of errors and report that greater exposure errors (near misses vs. errors), debriefing, interactions with physicians and patients who were involved in errors are important to their learning process. The productive failure design can be an ideal framework to build such learning modules.


In a study, students of a pharmacy program were randomized to a productive failure or indirect failure (given wrong answers, and correct equation to learn by contrast) group. Those in the productive failure group outperformed those in the indirect failure group, showing improved knowledge acquisition, and greater preparation for future learning immediately and one-week later.


If the goal is to allow learners the opportunities to make mistakes and learn, immersive virtual reality may be a conducive delivery platform.


In a virtual learning environment, the user can learn-by-doing, and make mistakes in a safe and controlled environment while keeping the cost-of-errors low. Virtual environments also allow the user to experience/witness hypothetical or rare scenarios, abstract concepts, and even obtain a third-person perspective – experiences that cannot be replicated in real life.


Teaching individuals to recognize an error is critical to the productive failure design. In a virtual environment, the user can get real-time feedback about the error committed – reactions to prescription drug overdose, severe bleeding, puncture can be simulated in a VR scenario to allow the trainee to visually and emotionally experience the error, retrace steps and identify the error and attempt alternative approaches. Learning is enhanced by a sense of reality afforded by the immersion, and the immediacy of the feedback.


As a doctor or a surgeon, errors can have significant consequences. A medical or surgical error can impact the patient’s well-being and also impact their own reputation as a qualified practitioner. During high-stress situations, the individual must be prepared to speak to the patient and family in a composed manner and explain the nature and consequence of the error. Within VR scenarios trainees and seasoned professionals can safely experience making a mistake, managing it as best they can, and learn the interpersonal skills required to communicate with the patient and family.


VR scenarios can also allow professionals to personally experience being a patient. Exercises such as role-playing a patient led to students having a greater understanding of typical challenges faced by patients in complex care settings, their physical and mental health needs, a deeper understanding of the concept of integrated care, and heightened desire to improve patient care. It has been shown that such exercises build greater empathy among healthcare professionals, increases motivation to learn, results in a greater depth of subject matter understanding, and improves long-term retention due to the accompanying emotional encoding.


Interestingly, productive failure appears to work even better for individuals who otherwise score low on standardized assessments, by encouraging problem-based learning rather than rote-memorization, and tapping into tacit as well as explicit knowledge. While its applicability has largely been studied in the STEM fields, broader applications for the use of productive failure in learning are being explored. Using accessible and effective technologies VR may bolster the efforts to design and deliver education based on productive failure.

- Gayatri Aravind is Dark Slope’s Science Director and Advisor on Learning Science. Contact us to learn more about how your organization can use XR technologies to improve team training.

Dark Slope