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"Desirable Difficulties" can Lead to Deeper Learning and Better Retention

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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"Chapter 1 examines three research-based principles for teaching and learning: (a) desirable difficulties, or requiring students to work harder in the initial learning period; (b) repetition; and (c) emotion in teaching and learning."


The posting below examines the notion of "desirable difficulties", or requiring students to work harder in the initial learning period. It is from Chapter 1, Deeper Learning and Better Retention, in the book, A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them, by Diane Cummings Persellin and Mary Blythe Daniels.  Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. []. Copyright © 2014 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Changing How We Think About the Goals of Higher Education

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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"Desirable Difficulties" can Lead to Deeper Learning and Better Retention

Great teachers [are] those people with considerable success in fostering deep approaches and results among their students.  - Ken Bain and James Zimmerman (2009)

Deep learning involves the critical analysis of new ideas, linking them to already known concepts and principles so that this understanding can be used for problem solving in new, unfamiliar contexts.  - Julian Hermida (n.d.)

Chapter 1 examines three research-based principles for teaching and learning: (a) desirable difficulties, or requiring students to work harder in the initial learning period; (b) repetition; and (c) emotion in teaching and learning.  In each section we share teaching applications. 

Principle 1: Desirable Difficulties Increase Long-Term Retention

We often seek to eliminate difficulties in learning, to our own detriment. - Jeff Bye (2011)
According to the pain is the gain.  - Ben Hei Hei, Ethics of the Fathers, 5:21 (220 CE)

Requiring students to organize new information and to work harder in the initial learning period can lead to greater and deeper learning.  Although this struggle, dubbed a desirable difficulty by investigator R.A. Bjork (1994), may at first be frustrating to learner and teacher alike, ultimately it improves long-term retention.  For example, the research of Rohrer and Taylor (2007) revealed that increased challenges during a math class produced better long-term performance. The authors instructed subjects how to find the volume of four geometric figures.  Group 1 was taught how to find the volume of only one figure, while group 2 was taught several different types of problems.  Although initially the second group performed worse in practice sessions, after a week delay they outperformed the first group on tests, answering 63% of the questions correctly compared to only a 20% correct response rate from group 1.

In the short term, conditions that make learning more challenging - such as generating words instead of passively reading them, varying conditions of practice, transferring knowledge to new situations, or learning to solve multiple types of math problems at once - might slow down performance. However, there is a yield in long-term retention.  At first the learner may make more errors or forget an important process, but it is this forgetting that actually benefits the learner in the long term; relearning forgotten material takes demonstrably less time with each iteration.  The subjective difficulty of processing disfluent information can actually lead learners to engage in deeper processing strategies, which then results in higher recall for those items. (Bye, 2011)

By forcing the brain to create multiple retrieval paths, a desirable difficulty makes the information more accessible.  If we can use information in multiple ways and multiple contexts, we build many pathways to memory; thus, if one pathway is blocked, we can use another.

These difficulties invite a "deeper processing of material than people would normally engage in without explicit instruction to do so" (Bjork, 1994).  However, teaching with desirable difficulties can be challenging. Learners, of course, are gratified when they feel that they are processing information easily.  Instructors understandably want learning to come quickly for students and may choose the method that produces immediate results.  However, as Bye (2011) states, when "instructors facilitate learning by making it easier, it may increase short-term performance, but it may decrease long-term retention."  Bjork (2013) suggests that once instructors decide what they want students to remember a year after their course is over, they then think about how to implement desirable difficulties into their course. This may mean introducing an important concept multiple times in different ways throughout the semester, making the important class concepts relevant to other course material (see Principle 3: Emotion and Relevance Deepen Learning, p. 15), and asking students to analyze and produce knowledge, rather than listen to theinstructors present it (see chapter 2, "Actively Engaged Learning," p. 23).

Instructional Applications

Quiz Students

Quiz students on material rather than having them simply restudy or reread it (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Even if quizzes are low-stakes assessments, they force students to generate information rather than passively read (See Principle 6: Formative Assessment of Low-Stakes Evaluation Strengthens Retention, p. 43).

Generate Knowledge

Ask learners to generate target material through an active, creative process, rather than simply by reading passively.  This could involve role playing, structured debates, puzzles, or scientific study (McDaniel & Butler, 2010; see chapter 2, "Actively Engaged Learning," p. 23).

Space Practice Sessions

Have students rehearse or practice important skills during different sessions.  Dempster and Farris (1990) and Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, and Roher (2006) found that when sessions were spaced further apart, students were more likely to retain material (see Principle 2: Meaningful and Spaced Repetition Increases Retention, p. 12).

Allow for Confusion

When a concept is difficult, allow students to experience and work their way through their frustration.  When students are able to resolve their initial confusion themselves, deeper learning takes place.

Challenge the Reader

When learners perceive that material is more difficult to read, they tend to read it with more care and process it more deeply (McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996). Studies suggest that even using fonts that are slightly more difficult to read affects engagement and processing (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley, & Eyre, 2007; Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Yue, Castel, & Bjork, 2013).

Wait for an Answer

Allowing time to think between asking a question and requiring an answer gives students the opportunity to better formulate their answers and, therefore, increases the depth of answers.  It also lets students know the instructor will not be answering his or her own questions.

Interleave Material 

Teach several skills or concepts in the same class rather than focusing on only one specific idea.
Create Concept MapsAsk students to create a concept map.  This requires them to generate relationships based on the class discussion or readings (see Workshop 1.1:Concept Maps).

AnnotatedResearch Studies

Dempster, F., & Farris, R. (1990).  The spacing effect: Research and practice.  Journal of Research and Development in Education, 23(2), 97-101.

In this study investigators found that spaced instruction yielded significantly better learning than massed presentations.  Two spaced presentations were nearly twice as effective as two massed presentations. In many cases effectiveness increased as the frequency of the presentations increased.

Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenhimer, D., & Vaughan, E. (2011). Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118(1), 111-115. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012.

This article reports the results of two studies examining the impact on learning of a font that is slightly more difficult to read. Both studiesfound that information in harder-to-read fonts was better remembered than information shared in easier-to-read fonts.  The struggle to read the material was thought to contribute to deeper processing.

Karpicke, J., & Blunt, J. (2011).  Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018). 772-775. doi.10.1126/science.1199327

Two hundred college students were divided into four groups and asked to read several paragraphs about a scientific topic.  Each group performed one of the following learning strategies: (a) reading the text for 5 minutes, (b) reading the text in four consecutive 5-minute sessions, (c) drawing diagrams about information from the excerpt they were reading, and (d) reading the passage once and taking a "retrieval practice test" that required them to write down what they recalled.  A week later all four groups took a quiz asking them to recall facts from the passage they had read and to draw conclusions on the basis of those facts.  The students in the fourth group, who took the practice test, recalled 50% more of the material than those in the other three groups.  The investigators concluded that by organizing and creating meaningful connections, struggling to remember information, and identifying areas of weakness, students were able to better recall information.

McDaniel, M., Hines, A., Waddill, P. & Einstein, G. (1994).  What makes folk tales unique: Content familiarity, causal structure, scripts, or superstructures?  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(1), 169-184. 

Investigators asked students to generate new material by creating puzzles and other active processes related to the literature to be learned.Students who were actively involved in creating the new material remembered the material significantly better than students who had passively read the material.

McNamara, D.S., Kintsch, E., Songer, N.B., & Kintsch, W. (1996).  Are good texts always better?  Interactions of text coherence, background knowledge, and levels of understanding in learning from text.  Cognition and Instruction, 14(1), 1-43. doi: 10.1207/s1532690xci1401_1.

The investigators examined students' comprehension of one of four versions of a text.  They found that readers who knew little about the topic of the text benefited from a strong, coherent text, whereas high-knowledge readers benefitted from a weak, minimally coherent text. The investigators argued that the poorly written text forced the knowledgeable readers to work harder to understand the unstated relationships in the text.