In this episode, I dive into the transformative concept of productive struggle and how it can be a secret weapon for your academic success.

I’ll demystify what productive struggle actually is, highlighting the difference between productive and unproductive struggle. Then, I’ll share 7 simple, practical strategies to help you navigate and embrace productive struggle, so you can use the challenges in your studying to deepen your learning, improve your skills and achieve higher grades.

With productive struggle nailed, you’ll learn how to boost your confidence, improve memory retention, and apply your learning to real-world scenarios. 

This episode is packed with practical advice and empathetic guidance, making it a must-listen for adult learners balancing studies with work and family responsibilities. Tune in to discover how to convert frustration into progress so you can achieve your academic goals.

This post originated as a podcast episode which you can listen to below or search for episode 156 of the Chloe Made Me Study podcast. Or, if you’re more of a learn-by-reading student, carry on for the rough-and-ready blog version based on the podcast script.

Ways to listen:


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What is productive struggle?

Productive struggle is the process of challenging yourself through the learning process to reach deeper understanding and a higher level of skills.

It involves engaging with tough study tasks, wrestling with difficult concepts, making mistakes and learning from them, and sitting with and then pushing through discomfort.

Productive struggle is an uncomfortable process that involves facing your skills and knowledge gaps head on. Sitting with a concept you do not understand or a task that you do not know how to do – and working your way through it productively – meaning that the effort is focused – until you reach a breakthrough.

Why is productive struggle important for adult learners?

  1. Productive struggle BOOSTS your confidence over time. While you’re in it you may feel crappy and like you just can’t do this higher education malarkey. But when you push through to the other side, you will have developed more resilience which will then serve you in your future academic and personal challenges
  2. Productive struggle is the way to get things to stick in your brain. When you’ve had to fight for your understanding, when it’s not been easy breezy, when you’ve had to employ effort and look at a problem multiple different ways you forge stronger mental connections so your knowledge is deeper and you’re more likely to retain it.
  3. As adult learners, we like to know how our learning applies to the real world. If we’re going to invest all this time and money into furthering our studies then it needs to be relevant and applicable to our current and future lives. Well, the skills you’ll gain from productive struggle in your studies – problem-solving, patience, resilience, seeking the best support – are all vital skills you can use at work and in your personal life and relationships to work through tricky situations.

How to distinguish between productive struggle and unproductive struggle

It’s super important that you learn to distinguish between when you’re in productive struggle, which will lead to progress, and when you’re in unproductive struggle.

Unproductive struggle is where you’re facing challenges in your studying but they do not lead to meaningful learning or growth – because you don’t have the resilience, skills, patience, support or attitude to push past them. A lot of time is wasted and confidence lost here – two resources that adult learners can’t afford to squander.

Unproductive struggle leads to frustration, a sense of failure, no or poor results, and disengagement from learning. If you find yourself in unproductive struggle often enough you are likely to doubt your abilities to study at university level, you might drop out of your course, or you might keep going but lower your goals and have a bit of a miserable time.

There are five key differences between productive struggle and unproductive struggle.

1. Support

UNPRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you don’t have much access to support, guidance, feedback or resources, or you aren’t making full use of what is available e.g. not using your university for support. (This is why many members of the Kickbutt Students Club joined. They didn’t want to feel isolated anymore and knew that studying alongside like minded peers and having access to study skills guidance would help them push through their challenges and learn from them.

PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you use the support available to you, or try to find more, to improve your skills and learning. You also seek out feedback.

2. Understanding

UNPRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: if you don’t understand a concept you skip over it. If you don’t understand how to do something, like structuring your paragraphs or referencing, you wing it and hope no one will notice. Or you reach a stuck point and immediately ask for help without really trying for yourself first.

PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you know you won’t always grasp an idea straight away and that sometimes the explanation provided doesn’t click with your brain. So you actively look for other explanations. You see if your university has other information or guidance, you Google it or look it up on YouTube, you hunt for other resources, you talk to people or other students who might know. You reach out to your tutor or lecturer once you’ve already had a go at working it out yourself.

3. Strategies

UNPRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: if a strategy doesn’t work, like planning your studying at the beginning of the week, you give up.

PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you know that there are millions of different strategies and methods out there so you look for another one…and another one…and another one, until you find what works.

4. Emotions and stress

UNPRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you experience high levels of anxiety and frustration. The struggle to learn drains you and leaves you feeling defeated.

PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you will likely also experience stress and frustration but you also feel challenged and determined and motivated to make progress. You know you’ll feel satisfied once it clicks.

5. Reflection and mistakes

UNPRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you rarely reflect on your studying. You don’t think about what went well and not so well during your study sessions, or throughout your essay writing or exam revision process. You find yourself making similar mistakes again and again and your results stay roughly the same.

PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE: you reflect on your studying A LOT. You’re always looking for small tweaks you can make to your habits, strategies and mindset and your knowledge, skills and results improve steadily.

7 ways to get better at productive struggle

So I’ve touched on some of the areas for you to look at if you want to become better at productive struggle – so you can make faster, better progress towards your study goals. I’m gonna outline 7 ways here.

1. Recognise when you’re in unproductive struggle

  1. Are you feeling excessively frustrated, anxious or defeated? Is your self-talk pretty mean?
  2. Have you spent a lot of time on a problem and not really got anywhere?
  3. Are you making the same mistakes and you’re not really sure why?
  4. Are you struggling to understand the task or goal or how exactly to do something? (for example, accurate referencing for an essay)
  5. Are you struggling to find or access the support and guidance you need?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then you’re likely in unproductive struggle. Recognising this is the first step so now listen up to the next six strategies. 

2. Understand that struggle IS learning

It’s important to accept that productive struggle is NOT a sign that you’re a bad student or not cut out for higher education study. Instead, it’s a VITAL step in learning something new and developing skills and knowledge at a level you did not have before.

Over the last few years I’ve been watching and sometimes supporting my nephew, William, as he learns to read. Jesus Christ on a bike that looks hard. Imagine if we had just decided as children that it was way too much effort to spend 10 minutes reading one page and getting every other word wrong.

You ARE a natural productive struggle-er – but the stresses of higher education may have made you forget how to do it. Therefore, once you accept that struggle is a part of your learning process you’ll find it easier to embrace it and move into productive struggle.

3. Adopt a growth mindset

Mindset is a big part of the game for academic success. And it plays a key role in embracing productive struggle. I invite you to adopt a growth mindset – which is the belief that all your abilities, including intelligence, can be improved through effort and learning. Challenges are opportunities for you to develop your knowledge, skills and abilities so you can become better than before.

A growth mindset is expansive. Once you adopt it you’ll feel pretty unstoppable because you know that graduating with your dream grades is completely possible if you incrementally improve your study skills and abilities along the way.

4. Seek the right support

You are not an island. As an adult learner in higher education you are expected to engage in independent learning. But I believe in taking a scaffolding approach – where you seek support in two key ways.

  1. First, you need support to learn key study skills, such as time management, organisation, reading, note taking, active learning, essay writing, critical thinking, exam preparation. This type of support is what your university should be able to support you with, but often this isn’t great and tutors or lecturers are not inclined to guide you. This is where my support comes in – this podcast and my blog, my email newsletters and my study skills trainings will all help you to develop the skills you need to engage in productive struggle and achieve the results you really want.
  2. Second, you need support with persevering through the productive struggle. No one can do this for you, and you want to be able to trust in yourself to get you out of sticky situations. But you can lean on others to encourage you to keep going. To problem-solve, to keep pushing. There are multiple avenues for this support. You might have a great tutor or lecturer, you might have found great peers on your course or your friends and family may be great at giving pep talks. This is why I created my membership, the Kickbutt Students Club, to provide a place for students to come and get a kick up the butt, or a kind inspiration boost – whatever you most need in the moment to urge you back into productive struggle.

5. Become a master problem solver

I mentioned some of these ideas earlier. But your job is to be scrappy and gritty and solve problems in your studying as they arise. If you don’t know the answer, you find it. You dive into the guidance and resources provided by your university. You look for more explanations online, you ask people for advice who’ve been in your shoes. You invest time and money in books, courses or coaching to develop the skills you need. You build a relationship with your tutor or lecturer where you reach out to them for clarification or support – once you’ve tried to work something out for yourself. 

6. Use self care

When you’re feeling stressed out in your studies, you’re going to struggle to access your productive struggle resources such as problem-solving and resilience. So it’s important you take breaks and engage in self care activities that fill your cup and allow you to access these helpful resources. Learn to rest, not to quit. And work out what works for YOU. For me, it’s getting out of my head and into my body. I’ve tried meditation and I get some benefit from breathwork and lying under my weighted blanket. But I’ve worked out that what I really need is a more forceful shift! So I’ve picked up running again and I go wild swimming a few times a week which is frigging freezing for most of the year.

7. Reflect

I mentioned this earlier. Reflection is key for academic success. I could talk about this all day but one way for you to engage in this is just before a study session.

  1. What went well in your last study session that you could repeat today?
  2. What did you struggle with? Did you become easily distracted or overwhelmed?
  3. What could you do differently today to not experience these same struggles?

Super simple. But answering these reflection questions allows you to repeat what’s working, and tweak what’s not. Over time you start to know yourself and who you are as a learner. And when you know yourself you can be sooo much more productive.

OK, so there we have it guys. I’ve shared with you the differences between unproductive and productive struggle, and the awesome benefits to your studying and wider life of developing the resilience and problem-solving skills of a productive struggle-er. And you’ve got 7 techniques that you can try today to embrace more productive struggle in your studying and life so you can achieve the results you really want.


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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