Let’s face it: We want things to be easy. Like rivers that flow around mountains instead of going through them, we usually seek the path of least resistance in our lives. We choose the escalator over the stairs and the movie over the book. But it’s clear that easier isn’t always better. In fact, making things more difficult can often lead to better outcomes. Taking the stairs is better for your physical health than taking the escalator precisely because the stairs are more difficult. The same is true for learning.
Whether you’re studying for the SAT, teaching math in elementary school, or trying to improve your golf game, decades of research in the learning sciences have revealed that introducing difficulties, or challenges, during practice can greatly improve retention. Dr. Robert Bjork, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at UCLA, coined the term desirable difficulties to capture the revolutionary idea that short-term pains can lead to long-term gains in learning.
I’ll now provide a brief and general description of three desirable difficulties that have enjoyed a wealth of empirical support over the years and, therefore, should be implemented widely and frequently.
(1) Spaced practice. I, like many of you I presume, crammed a lot when I was in school, especially in college. I’d study the material over and over again for hours on end. This is what learning scientists call massed practice, and research shows that it’s ineffective when it comes to learning. It might feel like it’s working in the moment, but it won’t lead to the type of lasting retention and meaningful understanding we seek. For that to happen, spacing out study or review sessions with time is a much better way to go. If you’re a student, studying in three one-hour chunks is better than studying for three hours straight. The amount of time spent studying is exactly the same, but the spaced schedule will lead to much better retention. If you’re a teacher, consider reviewing important content every couple of weeks to help the information stick.
(2) Interleaved practice. Suppose you want to improve two of your swim strokes — say, your backstroke and butterfly. If you’re like most people, you would put in all your practice with the backstroke before moving on to the butterfly (or vice versa). This is called blocked practice because each of the separate to-be-learned skills is practiced in large chunks, or blocks. Like massed practice, blocked practice might produce rapid short-term gains, but those gains will quickly vanish. Interleaving, or mixing-up, the skills — in this case, perhaps by alternating between your backstroke and butterfly every lap — would produce better long-term learning. This is because interleaving encourages more effortful thinking and helps the learner identify the key differences between the various things they’re trying to learn. So, whether you’re a teacher, coach, or student, try mixing things up. It’ll seem a bit more challenging in the moment and will likely lead to more mistakes at first, but it’ll eventually produce more efficient and effective learning.
(3) Retrieval practice. Testing has become a bad word, mainly because we associate it with high-stakes assessments. But did you know that testing is one of the most powerful learning tools known to learning scientists?! Testing encourages us to retrieve the information ourselves, which helps reinforce our memory and leads to better learning than being presented with the material. Researchers call this the testing effect, and it has been demonstrated 100’s of times over the last century. So, the next time you sit down to learn foreign language vocabulary or concepts in your economics class, you should test yourself more and study less. I know that sounds strange, but pulling things out of your head will reveal gaps in your knowledge and will help the information stick. For you teachers out there, asking lots of questions during class, having your students teach each other, and administering low- or no-stakes quizzes are great ways to facilitate lasting learning. Just remember: Retrieving from memory strengthens memory.
Spacing, interleaving, and retrieval are considered desirable difficulties because their challenging nature improves learning. But it’s important to note that they aren’t too challenging. Introducing difficulties during practice is only beneficial when people are able to overcome the difficulties that have been introduced. If the difficulties are too difficult — if people don’t have the necessary background knowledge or skills to handle them — they become undesirable. Keep this caveat in mind as you consider ways to utilize these strategies to enhance your own educational practices.
Finally, because desirable difficulties are, by definition, difficult and often lead to mistakes, teachers, coaches, and students probably won’t be thrilled to use them. Again, people like to take the path of least resistance whenever possible. And the shift to using desirable difficulties won’t come naturally because this concept goes against our common sense. But as Drs. Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, two of the most respected learning scientists in the world, remind us:
“…optimizing learning and instruction often requires going against one’s intuitions, deviating from standard instructional practices, and managing one’s own learning activities in new ways.”
In order to become better educators and life-long learners, we need to start viewing challenges and struggles as opportunities for learning, not barriers to it. We need to stop taking the escalator and start taking the stairs.