How can I stimulate students’ independent learning by using ‘constructive friction’?

We aim to design education in such a way, that students take responsibility for their own learning. However, not all students are used to take responsibility for their own learning; not all students know how to do so; and not all students appreciate education wherein they are expected to take the lead.

Consequently, as a lecturer, you may need to help students ‘learn how to learn’. Letting students experience friction by not meeting their initial needs can be a way to do so.

Getting started

Taking responsibility for own learning is conceptualised as students’ self-regulated or self-directed learning in the literature. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how different interplays between a teacher’s and a student’s regulation of the learning process can have different outcomes:

  • Congruence occurs when the teacher’s teaching and the student’s learning is compatible. Typical examples are strong regulation of learning in a first course, as students are not (yet) used to the regulation expected in the educational setting and loose teacher regulation in a master thesis, when students are expected to be able to take the lead.
  • Friction occurs when teaching and learning are not compatible. A typical example is when students are expected to manage group work themselves, but struggle to do so without teacher support and/or deadlines. Yet, (destructive) friction also occurs when lecturers provide too much guidance and support and fail to call upon students’ skills and knowledge.

Interplays between teacher and student regulation of the learning process

Degree of student regulation Degree of teacher regulation
Strong Shared Loose
High Destructive friction Destructive friction Congruence
Intermediate Destructive friction Congruence Constructive friction
Low Congruence Constructive friction Destructive friction

Adapted from Vermunt & Verloop, 1997, p.270

Friction can be unpleasant to start with, however it could also provide an important boost to learning when friction is used in a constructive manner; that is, when students are challenged to develop their competences and expertise.  By providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating ‘constructive friction’), lecturers can give students the opportunity to develop in ways that they did not expect they were capable of doing on their own (cf. ‘out of a comfort zone’).

You can create constructive friction to promote independent learning at different levels:

  • in lesson/lecture, for instance by asking students to prepare and present part of the content themselves
  • in an assignment, for instance by inviting students to design and complete part of the assessment (of the process/group work)
  • in a program (line), for instance by having students plan their curriculum, including when and where they will conduct an internship/thesis/capstone


Vermunt, J. D., & Verloop, N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and instruction, 9(3), 257-280.

This article describes teaching activities that elicit the most often used cognitive, affective and metacognitive learning activities, differentiated for teacher, shared and student-regulated learning processes.