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Learning shouldn’t be easy, it should be ‘Desirably Difficult’…

This blog is written in response to those who I hear say ‘we need to make learning easier’, those out there who believe in the ‘one page summary’ and that everything of relevance must be captured within ‘simple’ tasks….

Learning should actually be DIFFICULT the caveat being that learning should be ‘Desirably Difficult’, as phrase coined by Dr Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist at UCLA.

So what is it?

‘Desirable Difficulty’ in learning, are situation which make things harder to grasp initially (encode or place in your mind), yet because of this they become easier to recall and apply at a later date (retrieve or easier to find).


Bjork and fellow psychologists have found that when we do well on learning tasks, we are likely to forget things more quickly than if we do badly and that good instruction which creates ‘Desirable Difficulties’ can aid retention.

These difficulties seem to encourage a deeper processing of material than people would normally engage in without explicit instruction to do so. Learners have to make an intellectual effort to ‘get it’. This effort makes the retrieving process easier.

James Paul Gee in his work on ‘games as learning machines’ (those of the computer and video type), describes a similar concept known as ‘Pleasant Frustration’. He offers the following thoughts:

Learning works best when new challenges are pleasantly frustrating in the sense of being felt by learners to be at the outer edge of, but within, their “regime of competence”. That is, these challenges feel hard, but doable. Furthermore, learners feel and get evidence that their effort is paying off in the sense that they can see, even when they fail, how and if they are making progress.

So how do we use this to design better learning?

Dr. Bjork, who has been conducting research on remembering, forgetting and desirable difficulties for many years offers the following guidance:

a) Space learning – sessions should be spaced apart rather than massed together, make space for refection and forgetting but be sure to revisit topics periodically
b) Interleave topics – mix it up and practice several related things in a chain, forming a pattern of ABCABCABC or ACBABCBAC (randomised) rather than AAABBBCCC (blocked).

Blocking vs Interleaving

c) Test and re-test – Avoid excessive practice, testing learners on material rather than have them simply restudy it can help as long as it is positively managed. Learn, test, test, test, relearn –

Retrieval is best when some forgetting has set in recall is effortful.

d) Have learners generate target material – Through a puzzle or other types of active learning processes, rather than simply reading it passively
e) Making learning materials less clearly organised – using fonts that are slightly harder to read leads to effortful reading and better retrieval
f) Vary the settings in which learning takes place – go outside and play with the learning then bring it back inside to reflect on and adapt

The ‘pleasant frustration’ of learning is healthy and brings with it deeper thought, processing and cognitive engagement, so don’t be shy to scatter common problems throughout your teaching and learning.

Ironically this approach is in conflict with the view that we should look to match our delivery method with the preference of the learner, in doing this we may actually be reducing learning. If we do not have to work hard to make sense of what we learn, then we are less likely to remember it. In short, we often seek to eliminate difficulties in learning to our own detriment.

At the recent #UKCoachingSummit Damian Hughes (@LiquidThinker) shared some good examples of the need for 'desirable difficulty' to promote learning. Referring to these incidents as the 'tripwire' of learning, capable of engaging left and right brain activity in their own battle for space in your thought.

In closing lets recognise that making learning easier can devalue the process and the person, conversely making learning ‘desirably difficult’ with the right dose of ‘pleasant frustration’ can make it memorable and valued by the learner.

Thanks must go to Liam McCarthy for providing the catalyst and to some degree content for this blog as it was our between busyness chats that sparked these ramblings – so blame him.

A contentious question to conclude, which is - do I have an unfair advantage when it comes to learning then, as I have a built in difficulty ‘dyslexia’. Malcom Gladwell thinks so and I’m not too sure he’s wrong but he has been proven mistaken before…

Additional Reading

To find out more about ‘Desirable Difficulty’ take a look at Dr Robert Bjork work at UCLA.

To learn more about James Paul Gee and his work on Video Games and Learning check out his Keynote address at Curriculum Corporation 13th National Conference, Adelaide.

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Blog by Kurt Ewald Lindley (Development Lead Officer – Coach Developer)


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