Persistence is not Always Productive: How to Stop Students from Spinning their Wheels

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Quick summary:

Students are often told to push themselves to the limit in the math classroom. But is this persistence always the most productive way for students to learn? Professor Neil Heffernan who runs the ASSISTments project at WPI weighs in about how students can move past spinning their wheels and start mastering math content.

Although persistence is often effective at supporting student learning, it can also be counterproductive at times. If students are unprepared to take on a particular type of problem because they didn’t understand the prerequisite concepts, persistence isn’t helpful. It can even be harmful when routinely misapplied. 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.

Educators must be able to distinguish between moments of "productive persistence" and moments where students are simply spinning their wheels. Believe it or not, “wheel-spinning” is now a technical term and has become a topic of interest to researchers who study how children learn. According to researchers Joseph Beck and Yue Gong, wheel-spinning is generally defined as “students who do not succeed in mastering a skill in a timely manner.”

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