By Sam Kane-Gerard
Sam Kane-Gerard is a recent graduate of Goucher College where he studied psychology, focusing primarily on learning and memory. Sam is also an avid drummer, loves soccer, and has a knack for relating everything in life back to psychological science.
Most people know the benefits of eating vegetables. Yet, according the CDC, approximately 1 in 10 Americans aren't getting their daily recommended vegetable intake (1).
So if we know the importance of vegetables for optimal health, why are we having this vegetable-eating problem?
For starters, it's a problem that is not solved simply by saying, "Susie, eat your vegetables! They're good for you!" Susie knows that vegetables are good for her and that she's supposed to eat them, but they don't taste as good as chips or candy and, as a kid, the long-term health benefits don't give her a lot of incentive to eat what tastes icky in the moment.
However, Susie's vegetable-eating problem has larger implications than Susie's diet.
As studies of human behavior show, people tend to prioritize what offers the most immediate benefit to them (2). When it comes to food, taste is a more compelling motivator than longer-term outcomes such as healthy blood pressure or lower calorie intake.
The same goes for learning.
Knowing what I know about effective learning strategies from my cognition courses, cramming for exams is just about the worst study practice in terms of long-term retention. The best way to actually retain the information is to use strategies that incorporate desirable difficulties which slow down learning and make it more challenging in order to increase long-term retention (e.g., interleaving, self-testing, elaboration) (3). However, cramming is quick, requires less work, and is quite effective for performing well on an exam the next day. So, as a busy undergraduate student, if my time is limited (as it seems to always be), you’d better believe I'm going to cram.
Having spent the past two years studying and researching effective learning strategies, I still find myself falling back on "bad habits" of learning. And not every student is studying and researching these effective strategies. So how can we expect to get progressive learning research implemented in classrooms with students who are not explicitly studying effective learning, and with groups of diverse learners?
In the field of learning science, we have a vegetable-eating problem.
And unfortunately, that problem is not solved simply by saying, "Susie, use your desirable difficulties! They're good for learning!"
Recent research on student awareness of these empirically supported learning strategies has shown a couple of consistent patterns:
Many students still fall prey to common learning myths and lack general awareness of the most effective ways to learn (i.e., preferring massing to interleaving). (4)
Even when students are aware of the best strategies, they often still prefer to use less effective ones. (5)
As counterintuitive as it might seem, awareness of effective learning methods does not necessarily lead to engaging in effective learning. Researchers have a number of explanations for this:
Like vegetables, the benefits of desirably difficult strategies don't tend to be recognizable in the short-term. These strategies actually make learning feel harder, and the long term benefits are not overt. (3)
Less effective strategies (like cramming) tend to create fluency illusions where we think we are learning something better than we actually are (6). In the case of cramming, consolidating study into a single session may get you a solid grade on your exam, but will leave you drawing a blank when you try and recall the information later on.
There are many learning myths present in education that are perpetuated by students and teachers alike. In fact, research has shown that, on average, teachers are not much more aware of desirably difficult learning strategies than students are. This is not terribly surprising considering that a student's main information source for how to learn is the educator (7).
So what does this mean for learning scientists? Should they just find a new field of research? Are humans doomed to remain mediocre learners for all of eternity?
Here's the good news: a recent study - co-written by "Mr. Desirable Difficulties" himself, Dr. Robert Bjork - has found an interesting correlation between being an effective self-regulated learner and mindset (8).
Mindset theory, originally developed by Carol Dweck, models peoples’ view of learning on a spectrum from fixed to growth.
Those with a fixed mindset believe intelligence and ability are static or "fixed" traits.
Those with a growth mindset, based on the notion of neuroplasticity, believe that intelligence and abilities can improve through hard work and challenge (9).
Results from a survey of 60 students and 390 non-student adults found that people with higher measures of growth mindset were more likely to have better practices of self-regulated learning (e.g., utilizing desirably difficult strategies) (8).
Based on what we know about growth mindset, this comes as no surprise. People with a growth mindset tend to prioritize learning experiences by seeking out challenges in order to grow as learners. This would coincide well with using desirably difficult strategies; using these strategies requires being willing to add challenge to your studying as a means of improving learning.
As with any skill, the more we practice, the better we get. To best utilize desirable difficulties, it takes knowing how, where, and when to implement them (not all difficulties are desirable, and not all strategies are appropriate for every learning situation). However, for most people (including myself), it would seem that the real challenge is initiation and implementation. I could know everything there is to know about learning, but if I don't actually apply what I know, I'm not getting any personal benefit. Plus, momentum helps; the more we do something, the more it becomes habit and the easier it gets. We might even begin to enjoy it (10)!
Sometimes the hardest part is initiating and, for Susie, being forced to eat vegetables might not make for a sustainable diet. However, perhaps a change in mindset might make Susie more willing to accept the icky in the short-term for the reward in the long-term, whether it be at the dining table or in the classroom.
(1) Lee-Kwan, S. H., Moore, L. V., Blanck, H. M., Harris, D. M., & Galuska, D. (2017). Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable Consumption — United States, 2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 66(45), 1241–1247. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6645a1.
(2) Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0032198
(3) Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185–205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu
(4) McCabe, J. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory and Cognition, 39, 462-476. doi: 10.3758/s13421-010-0035-2
(5) Susser, J., & McCabe, J. (2013). From the lab to the dorm room: Metacognitive awareness and use of spaced study. Instructional Science, 41(2), 345-363. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23372892
(6) Karpicke, J., Butler, A., & Roediger, H. (2009) Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?, Memory, 17(4), 471-479. DOI: 10.1080/09658210802647009
(7) Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2016). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory, 24(2), 257-271. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2014.1001992
(8) Yan, V., Thai, K-P., & Bjork, R. (2014). Habits and beliefs that guide self-regulated learning: Do they vary with mindset?. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3(3), 140-152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2014.04.003
(9) Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis/Psychology Press, Philadelphia.
(10) Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6), 224–228. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00154