Implementing Desirable Difficulties for Learning

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

January 04, 2022

In three previous posts, I described retrieval practice, the spacing effect, and interleaving. Each of these is a unique way of learning that cognitive psychologists have discovered to be beneficial. What they have in common is that they each implement desirable difficulty into the learning process. 

“A desirable difficulty is a learning task that requires a considerable but desirable amount of effort, thereby improving long-term performance.” – Wikipedia

In other words, a desirable difficulty is something that is challenging, but not so hard as to be discouraging. Because the task is challenging, individuals remember the content or skill more readily than if they were learning in an easier way.

Retrieval practice, the spacing effect, and interleaving are all challenging, but can be accomplished. Furthermore, each learning strategy mimics what a person must be able to do once they have learned the content. For example, for a person to remember something they must be able to recall it (retrieval practice) at a later time (the spacing effect) while also holding other thoughts in their mind (interleaving). 

For librarians who conduct training and serve in an instructional role, finding ways to implement desirable difficulty can be particularly useful as they will aid those you are instructing in remembering. 

So what does this look like in practice?

You may be conducting training on using a new tool for competitive intelligence. The individuals in your training are familiar with a previous tool, but the new resource has a very different interface. You know that some individuals will become frustrated if they do not learn how to use it because the information they obtain from it is necessary for their jobs. However, you also know the tool is not one that is used on a daily basis, so individuals will need to be able to store knowledge of how to use the tool in their long-term memory. To support long-term memory retention, you decide to implement a desirable difficulty–in this case, retrieval practice. You start by showing individuals in the training how to use the tool, then, you ask individuals to complete a task using what they remember. Finally, you ask for a volunteer and that person completes the task in front of the group. The rest of the group gives advice on how to complete the task based on what they remember as the volunteer demonstrates their work. 

This is an example of a desirable difficulty, because you did not provide step-by-step instructions (I recommend doing this at the completion of the session), but instead, you ask the learners to retrieve content that was present in their short-term memory to complete a task in order to move that knowledge to long-term memory. 

As you create training for your organization’s stakeholders, I encourage you to find ways to implement desirable difficulties. 

*One thing to note, if you find your learners frustrated that you are asking them to do something hard (a desirable difficulty is difficult) explain the reasons behind why you designed the training the way you did. Explain the concept of desirable difficulty and how research supports its use for learning. You may want to reference some of the resources below.

Recommended Resources:

Bjork, E. & Bjork, R. (2009). Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning.  (Chapter 5). Psychology and the Real World. 

Persellin, D. C., & Daniels, M. B. (2015). A concise guide to improving student learning: Six evidence-based principles and how to apply them. Stylus Publishing, LLC. 

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets. 

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