Advances in Health Sciences Education

, Volume 24, Issue 4, pp 739–749 | Cite as

Productive failure as an instructional approach to promote future learning

  • Naomi SteenhofEmail author
  • Nicole N. Woods
  • Pascal W. M. Van Gerven
  • Maria Mylopoulos


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.


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



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leslie Dan Faculty of PharmacyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Faculty of MedicineUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.School of Health Professions Education, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life SciencesMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  4. 4.The Wilson CentreUniversity Health NetworkTorontoCanada

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