Weekly Digest #68: Desirable Difficulties

Weekly Digest #68: Desirable Difficulties

The concept of desirable difficulties describes the idea that students need tasks that challenge them to the right degree in order to learn best. Some have criticized this theory for being circular (1). That is, when a learning task is easy and later performance is low, it can be said that there were insufficient desirable difficulties. When a learning task is difficult and later performance is low, on the other hand, it can be said that the difficulties were not desirable. Finally, when the learning task is relatively difficult but later performance is high we might conclude that desirable difficulties are present. In these scenarios, the presence of desirable difficulties during learning is determined only after the fact. Ideally, we'd be able to determine whether difficulties are desirable before we introduce them into learning. However, regardless of this criticism, the idea of desirable difficulties can be useful to consider in an educational context. In this digest we provide of resources discussing and applying the theory.


1) Using Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning
Interview with Dr. Robert Bjork by Lasting Learning @LLearningGlobal

If you want to learn about a theory, there's no better source than the person who came up with it. In this video, Dr. Robert Bjork explains what he means by "desirable difficulties". Explore the Lasting Learning website for more videos from experts on learning and memory.


2) Robert and Elizabeth Bjork – Memory, Forgetting, Testing, Desirable Difficulties
Interview with Dr. Robert ad Elizabeth Bjork on the Mr Barton Maths Podcast @mrbartonmaths

If you want to hear more from Dr. Bjork, you can listen to this 2hr (!!) podcast he recorded with his wife and long-time collaborator on this line of research, Dr. Elizabeth Bjork. In this podcast the Bjorks talked with a UK math teacher about the nuances and applications of their theory. You may also enjoy other episodes from the Mr Barton Maths Podcast.

Image from linked source

Image from linked source


3) ‘Desirable difficulties’ in higher education
By Dr Esther Saxey from the LSE Teaching and Learning Centre @LSETLC

Image from linked source

Image from linked source


This article focuses on interleaving and variable practice (2) as examples of desirable difficulties. You might also enjoy the other pedagogical pieces in this series from the LSE Education blog.




Does the research we describe on our blog also apply to motor learning? Yes, it does. For example, a piano teacher described here how she applies the six strategies for effective learning to her teaching; playing an instrument obviously involves a lot of motor learning. Also, here Yana analyzed her dance classes to find evidence of effective strategies from cognitive psychology here. In this piece about golfing, the author (a coach) discusses how the principle of desirable difficulties applies to golf practice - though this would also apply to any other sport.


5) How to Get Excited About Topics That Bore You
By Barbara Oakley @barbaraoakley

We often get asked the following question by students: How can I study something I don't care about? This article, tackles the issue head-on, with concrete suggestions for how to study a subject you find boring - one of which is to embrace desirable difficulties. We found this article on the Learning to Learn StudyHike Facebook page, which is worth a follow alongside our own page.


(1) Jacoby, L. L., Wahlheim, C. N., & Coane, J. H. (2010). Test-enhanced learning of natural concepts: effects on recognition memory, classification, and metacognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 366, 1441-1451.

(2) Van Merriënboer, J. J., & Kirschner, P. A. (2012). Ten steps to complex learning: A systematic approach to four-component instructional design. Routledge.

Every Sunday, we pick a theme and provide a curated list of links. If you have a theme suggestion, please don’t hesitate to contact us! Occasionally we publish a guest digest, and If you'd like to propose a guest digest click here. Our 5 most recent digests can be found here:

Weekly Digest #63: Summer Safety

Weekly Digest #64: Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus

Weekly Digest #65: The Case Against Inquiry-Based Learning

Weekly Digest #66: What Makes a MOOC

Weekly Digest #67: Dual Coding in the Classroom