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Desirable difficulty

A desirable difficulty is a learning task that requires show better temporary performance effects, and these
a considerable but desirable amount of effort, thereby are confused for more permanent effects.[4] While this is
improving long-term performance. The term was first somewhat counterintuitive, studies show that difficulties
coined by Robert A. Bjork in 1994.[1] As the name sug- are better for increased performance in the long run. The
gests, desirable difficulties should be both desirable and following are examples of training tasks that are desirably
difficult. Research suggests that while difficult tasks difficult.
might slow down learning initially, the long term benefits
are greater than with easy tasks.[2] However, to be desir-
able, the tasks must also be accomplishable. 2.1 Retrieval practice
Many tasks give the illusion of learning because they are
too easy. For example, re-reading notes or a textbook is Also known as the testing effect, retrieval practice uses
a common learning tactic that has been proven to be less testing as a training tactic. Performance can be improved
beneficial than using flashcards.[2] A student will feel like by devoting some of the learning period to testing by try-
he or she is learning when re-reading, but this is partly ing to recall the to-be-learned information. An example
due to the fact that the words are more familiar rather than of this is flashcards, where a student will try to answer
that the material is being processed and learned. Flash- what is on the back of a card based on what is written on
cards, on the other hand, require the student to actively the front of a card (i.e. a word on the front and its defi-
recall the information. This is a desirable difficulty be- nition on the back). For best results, feedback is key; the
cause it requires more effort and forces the student to learner should receive feedback on their performance and
do more complex processing. At first, learning with de- learn the correct answers.
sirable difficulties may take longer and the student may
not feel as confident, but over time knowledge will be re-
tained better.[2] 2.2 Delayed feedback

To improve, students need to receive feedback on their

work; feedback could consist of the correct answers, a
1 Requirements grade, comments, etc. While feedback is essential, a sur-
prising result found is that delaying feedback is better
To determine whether a difficulty is desirable, use the fol- than receiving immediate feedback. It should be noted
lowing three guidelines:[2] that this is contingent on the delayed feedback being guar-
anteed. Feedback in any form is better than no feedback
1. The processing at encoding should be the same as at all.
the processing at retrieval.

2. The processing at encoding should be the same as 2.3 Spacing and interleaving
the processing during practice.
The spacing effect consists of repetitive studying while
3. The task must be able to be accomplished. Too dif-
ensuring that there is a delay between repetitions. If this
ficult a task may dissuade the learner and prevent full
delay is created through studying another task or subject,
the method is known as interleaving. An example of this
reviewing notes from previous weeks every week up until
the final. This will space out the review sessions instead
2 Research and examples of cramming and increase amount of information that is
committed to long term memory.
Researchers have experimented with various methods of
learning. A common theme between the methods that
have proven to be most beneficial is that they all present 2.4 Combined techniques
difficulties and challenges to the learner.[3] Compared
with traditional easier learning methods, they appear to Combining desirably difficult techniques in the right ways
make learning slower. The traditional easy tasks often can be beneficial. For example, the 3R technique involves


reading a piece of text, reciting the text without look- hancing human performance.
ing, and then reviewing the text again (3R = read-recite-
[2] Marsh, E. J.; Butler, A. C. (2014). Memory in educational
review). In one experiment, students who used this task
settings. Chapter in D. Reisberg (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of
performed better than those who simply reread the text.[2] Cognitive Psychology. pp. 299–317.
This method takes advantage of two desirable difficulties.
The first is that recalling what is written in the text takes [3] Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory consid-
considerably more effort than rereading. The second is erations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe
that during the review stage, students are actively looking and A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about
for feedback rather than passively receiving feedback in knowing. pp. 185–205.
other ways. [4] Bjork, Robert A.; Schmidt, Richard A. (1992). “New
Conceptualizations of Practice: Common Principles in
Three Paradigms Suggest New Concepts for Training”.
3 Implications American Psychological Society.

3.1 For students

Students can easily incorporate these techniques into their
everyday studying habits to increase their memory ca-
pacity. For example, instead of reading material, test-
ing yourself with flashcards will harness the testing effect.
The spacing effect and interleaving can be accomplished
by studying multiple subjects, spending time on one then
taking a break studying another subject before returning
to the original subject. This enforces interleaving by mix-
ing several subjects while also spacing out the studying
over different intervals.

3.2 For teachers

Teachers and professors can utilize spacing by including

problems on past topics throughout different homework
assignments. They can also utilize the test-a-day method
to enforce the testing effect, by requiring students to con-
sistently recall information. Delaying feedback on tests
and quizzes is also beneficial, but as long as it is not de-
layed so long that the students do not read the feedback.
One issue with a majority of current research is that it
occurs over a short time span such as a few hours to
a couple of days; however, teachers and professors are
more interested in ensuring the material they teach re-
mains long term. Through the study people’s recollec-
tion of high school Spanish words, Harry Bahrick was
able to show that a considerable portion of information
learned in a particular class is remember throughout a
person’s life and is known as permastore.[1][2] Bahrick
found that spaced post-study sessions promoted perma-
store for Spanish vocabulary, and likewise, Landauer and
Ainslie found that the testing effect increased scores on
the information over a year later.[2] The long term effect
over decades is still unknown and being researched.

4 References
[1] Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Ef-
fective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: En-

5 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses

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