Desiring Difficulties

It seems to be human nature to look for the path of least resistance. In most facets of our life we look for the next ‘thing’ that will make it easier. What can I buy that will make for less work? Will this gadget quicken this chore? Now, most of the time, these innovations enhance our life. I am very thankful for Alva J. Fisher. In 1908 he introduced the world to Thor, the world’s first electric washing machine. I shudder to think how my life might be a bit more difficult if I was unable to put clothes in our Maytag, press a couple of buttons, and forget about them until the buzzer sounds. I think we can all agree that several of the chores we may encounter on a daily basis would be much more difficult and time consuming a century ago. Certainly, sometimes looking for an easier way has its advantages.

But this is generally not the case with learning. In most instances, easier is not better. Easier is misleading. Easier is assuming. Easier is the fallacy of long-term learning. 

Many studies have researched this seemingly intuitive approach from students when it comes to learning and studying. Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger III (1) surveyed 177 college students about the strategies they use while studying. Eighty-four percent reported using rereading as a strategy with fifty-five percent stating it was their main study tool. Only eleven percent reported using recall, or self-testing, while studying and one percent stated it was their main strategy. That’s not good. Without a doubt, rereading of material is cognitively easier than self-testing. 

Why do students use poor study strategies? 

1. It’s all they know. Very rarely do I come across any students in my AP Psychology classes who choose to study via retrieval practice. Almost all reread their notes and highlight what they believe is important as they go. They know no other way. For students, I often hear that answering questions is work, not studying. They don’t equate the two together. 

2. They associate more time spent studying with better studying; what Nelson and Leonesio termed the labor-in-vain effect (2). Rereading several weeks of class notes can be quite time consuming and students incorrectly believe the more time they’ve spent looking at and reading their notes, the more they have learned. 

3. It’s easy. While rereading may feel like a chore and difficult, cognitively speaking, it isn’t. During rereading or restudy of notes, there is often no questioning their knowledge or confronting deficiencies. They don’t have to really produce any knowledge at all. They are not tasked with recalling or retrieving information from memory. Students read their notes from start to finish and they’re done. The faster they read, the sooner it’s over. It’s easy. 

And if a strategy isn’t cognitively demanding to a degree, the learner is probably not studying in the most efficient and effective manner. 

Dr. Robert Bjork coined the phrase desirable difficulties (3) to describe learning conditions that “trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering” (4). Learning conditions that may create desirable difficulties are: 

  1. varying the conditions of practice
  2. spacing study or practice sessions
  3. interleaving instruction 
  4. generating information and using tests as learning events. 

These conditions are in contrast to undesirable difficulties, which may occur because “the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully…” (4). The learner may see the task as too difficult to attempt or complete, creating an undesirable difficulty. There appears to be a ‘sweet spot’ between work that lacks enough cognitive rigor and work that overburdens the learner; where the difficulty is desirable.

So, how do we get students to desire these difficulties?

That’s the big question, isn’t it? How do we get our students to invest in these more difficult tasks for the sake of their learning? All of the research in the world on appropriate and effective study means nothing if those doing the learning don’t know about and use them, right? 

I believe the best course of action is to inform students and model these strategies with students.

I instruct my students on these conditions that may create desirable difficulties. I have explicit conversations about retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding, interleaving, et cetera. I tell them that easier isn’t really better. I tell them about the research. I show my students the data. It may seem trivial, but they seem to respond quite positively to this. They have, more than likely, never had a teacher discuss proper study techniques with them. Treating them like mature learners and including them in this discussion seems to resonate with my students.

As much as possible, we model these strategies. In one instance, I conducted a little demonstration with my students on the positive effects of distributing or spacing retrieval practice. My students completed a quiz on information we covered yesterday, a week ago, and approximately a month ago. The questions covering subject matter from yesterday and a week ago had never been recalled in class during review. The questions covering material from a month ago had been reviewed several times in class. Overwhelmingly, students were better able on the quiz to recall information that was originally covered a month ago. Students performed poorest on information covered a week ago. This showed students how powerful distributing practice of material can be. Throughout my semester-long course, there is a constant thread of “ok, now we’re going to attempt to retrieve some information” and “you’d rather practice now and get it wrong than find out you don’t know this on the test, when it’s too late”. 

To this end, a small study out of the Netherlands implemented a new learning strategy intervention (Smart Study) with college students in hopes of changing their poor study habits for more effective habits (5). Participants took part in three sessions (approximately two hours each) focusing on awareness, reflection, and practice of more effective learning strategies. Results indicated “the Study Smart program increased metacognitive knowledge on learning strategies and increased students’ use of practice testing. Furthermore, students relied less on rereading and highlighting, strategies known as ineffective regarding long-term learning” (5). It’s certainly still early days with these types of interventions, but results similar to these are promising for informing and changing student’s study habits. 

The ultimate goal is for students to desire to use these strategies when they produce better results…even if they may be a bit more difficult. Maybe if students begin to use more effective study strategies, they will learn more and invent the world’s first automatic clothes-folding machine.

Folding clothes…that’s an undesirable difficulty we can all do without. 🙂

  1. Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Butler, Andrew C. and Roediger III, Henry L. (2009) ‘Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?’, Memory, 17:4, 471 — 479.
  2. Nelson, T. O., & Leonesio, R. J. (1988). Allocation of self-paced study time and the” labor-in-vain effect.”. Journal of experimental psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 14(4), 676.
  3. Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185–205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 
  4. Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2(59-68).
  5. Biwer, F., et al. Fostering Effective Learning Strategies in Higher Education—A Mixed-Methods Study. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.03.004

Feature image by Jeremy Sallee on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Desiring Difficulties

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  1. I believe deeply in these techniques and I love how you implement them in your classes. But it drives me a little crazy that the way the research measures the effectiveness is by asking students if they use the new methods. I far prefer the studies that look at actual student performance. I’ll bet your students benefit from your training throughout their academic careers and even in the workplace. Keep up the great work!!

  2. I’m my (pea-sized) brain, encoding and retrieval remind me a lot of an electrical circuit. Just rereading is like connecting to only one terminal on a battery – it is not enough to make the light to come on. The energy has to come full circle from the (-) to the (+) to work. Similarly, the information has to go in (encoding) and come back out (retrieval) for the mental light bulb to come on, so to speak.

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