Desirable difficulty

Desirable difficulty

Good phrases are surely, and ever were, very commendable’ – as Shakespeare puts it. There was one that I heard for the first time the other day on the radio: ‘digital dust’ – to sum up concisely all that matter – comments, ‘likes’, votes etc. – that the social media generate, usually to little purpose.

Another good and interesting alliterative phrase I have come across recently is ‘desirable difficulty’. It seems a fairly well-established phrase (properly in the plural, desirable difficulties), having been launched by the American psychologist, Robert Bjork in about 1994.

‘Desirable difficulties’ are certain learning ploys that are slightly more problematic for the learner than the regular swatting, rote-learning or repetitive drilling, the sort of practices familiar to students the world over. The latter may produce the short-term goods for tests, but the former, it is claimed, if given a chance, are better for long-term retention.

I am not going to define Bjork’s difficulty techniques here, but the headings include ‘Spacing’, ‘Generation’, and ‘Interleaving’. One desirable difficulty about which I have my doubts is ‘Perceptual’ – the idea that, for example, fonts that are difficult to read or words in very small print can lead to engagement in deeper processing strategies.

This seems to me to go completely against common collective experience. The perceptual difficulty of densely-congested pages of small writing in long paragraphs may have its intellectual appeal to some readers in some circumstances, but as an aid to learning it seems very dubious.

However it is not my purpose to argue with ‘Bjork learning’: I have not systematically tried it, and I do in any case find something attractive and right about the general idea that knowledge and skills cannot be won without some deliberate exertion, either self-imposed or directed from without.

In the programme (Is Ignorance Bliss? Radio 4, January 2016) which raised and discussed ‘desirable difficulty’, it was the way in which the Internet seems to eliminate difficulty by instantly gratifying the user’s desire to know anything factual, that was considered potentially impoverishing.

Because the information thus obtained is not hard-won, the argument went, it is unlikely to be retained in the memory, and therefore is not learned thoroughly enough to become creatively or critically useful – in other words, real knowledge.

How then in the Internet age we live in – without imposing exceptional restraints on freedom – can students be introduced to the pleasure of effort in the pursuit of learning?  

Well, one little performance device that teachers and tutors can use for enlisting desirable difficulty is the hint or the clue – not answering every question directly and factually, but countering question with question in a manner that may lead the student to make the discovery of the answer for him- or herself.

How many is a century? is a question for one child. Instead of answering: One hundred, this can be teased out. Does it seem a lot or a little? If you score a century is it good? If you live for a century does it sound long?What is the 21st Century?How much is a cent? How many cents make a dollar or a euro? There are many possibilities.

Connections in learning are everything. The desirable difficulty of such little challenges is the means by which grounds for remembering can be prepared and understanding fixed.