Making Learning Difficult

What do I need to know?

Desirable difficulties refers to the idea that making learning difficult (requiring greater effort from the learner) can help to enhance learning outcomes. The following examples show how students benefit from challenging learning experiences in the classroom:

  • Varying the way that repeated information is taught, such as switching between group, individual, and whole-class learning, can help learners to retain more information. This technique is thought to work because the range of associations the brain makes with the material being learnt is increased.
  • Inserting breaks between repetitions, rather than presenting the repetitions without a break in the lesson is known as spaced learning. Clear breaks in learning mean that the brain considers repetitions to be separate encounters with the material, which is not the case when repetitions are presented without breaks. Research suggests that spaced learning is more efficient than traditional blocked learning: less teaching time is required to reach the same level of knowledge when content is spaced compared to when it is blocked.
  • Testing of student knowledge is a useful experience for the learner even though it may not feel like it: the act of trying to remember information (retrieval practice) helps to strengthen long-term memories. There is also evidence that it has the additional benefits of encouraging students to engage in independent study in preparation for the tests, and improving students’ awareness of what they are learning.
  • Interleaving is similar to spaced learning, but involves teaching different content rather than inserting a break in learning. Studies have shown that students may believe they have learned less after interleaved learning, but that their performance is in fact higher.
  • The enhanced learning that arises from students generating their own learning materials (such as flashcards), as opposed to those created by the teacher, is called the generation effect. When learners generate their own answers, learning outcomes are better than when they are given the answers.
  • Elaborate interrogation is a technique that takes advantage of the generation effect, and involves asking students to explain why a fact is true.
  • Similarly, self-explanation is an effective technique that involves asking students the steps taken during problem solving, or how new information relates to previously learnt material.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • Teach the same information more than once, varying the way it is taught. For example, vary the location, pedagogical approach (group, individual, and whole-class), and the presentation of the material (auditory, spatial, visual, physical).
    • Note that this is different to ‘learning styles’, an unscientific approach that teaches individual students according to their personal ‘style’.
  • Try the 20/10 method of spaced learning: alternate 20 minutes of intensive learning of the content with 10 minutes of a distractor activity (for example, a physical activity or a game – the important thing is that it is dissimilar to the learning activity).
    • Note that Brain Gym claims to balance the hemispheres of the brain but there is a lack of evidence, while aerobic exercise is more promising in benefiting learning.
  • For revision sessions give students tests of their comprehension of the material, requiring them to come up with answers on their own that cannot easily be extracted from the text. This approach is better for learning than traditional revision methods like concept-mapping.
  • Interleave content, teaching topics A and B alternately within a lesson, as opposed to topic A one week and topic B the next.
  • Encourage students to generate their own content and explanations, through creating and using flashcards, making up new mnemonics, or answering review questions after reading new material. Students could also unscramble anagrams when they are learning new words. Another evidence-based approach is to provide a paragraph with target words missing, which pupils must complete themselves.

Where can I find out more?