A Fresh Desirable Difficulty?


Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Ligon Bjork have argued that the right kind of difficulty can facilitate ultimate learning. These difficulties–“desirable difficulties”–require extra cognitive engagement, and thereby promote long-term memory formation.

Presenters at Learning and the Brain conferences often talk about “spacing,” or “interleaving,” or the “testing effect.” (In fact, Ian Kelleher has recently blogged about these strategies.) All these techniques boost learning by increasing desirable difficulty.

Nicholas Gasperlin wanted to know: is it desirable to divide students’ attention? Would that kind of difficulty enhance learning?

The short answer: No. Forcing students to focus on two things does ramp up the level of difficulty; however, it does not increase learning.

(However, it decreases learning much less than I would have predicted.)

The big news here, in my opinion, is that researchers are starting to ask this question. Up until now, we have heard a great deal about desirable difficulties, but haven’t gotten much guidance on UNdesirable ones. Now–finally–we’re starting to get research-based answers.

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