Desirable Difficulties: When Difficulty Becomes Desirable for Learning
Updated: Mar 8
Are there times when creating a challenge can be important for learning? Researchers say yes.
The concept of creating ‘desirable difficulties’ for learning was introduced by Robert Björk and Elizabeth Björk in 1994 in their article, Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning (1994). The Björk's concept of desirable difficulties combined with their study of the ‘testing effect’ have become increasingly popular in recent years as educators and researchers explore new ways to improve learning outcomes. Both ideas emphasize the importance of creating challenges in the learning process in order to promote deeper understanding and long-term retention of knowledge.
At its core, creating desirable difficulties refers to the idea that learning is often most effective when it is challenging and requires effort. In other words, when learners must work hard to master a new skill or concept, they are more likely to remember it in the long run. Björk argues that this is because difficult learning experiences create stronger connections in the brain, which can help to solidify memories and improve recall later on.
One way to create desirable difficulties is through the use of the testing effect, which refers to the idea that actively retrieving information from memory (e.g. through testing or quizzing) can improve long-term retention. By forcing learners to retrieve information from memory rather than simply reviewing it passively, the testing effect can help to create stronger connections between concepts and promote deeper understanding. This retrieval learning strategy forms the basis of our learning modules with short, focussed ‘tests’ that offer the learner both recognition questions (multiple-choice questions, true/false questions, and matching questions) and generative questions (short-answer questions and open-ended questions). Mixing up the type of questions and information, as our practice tests do, also creates a desirable difficulty and promotes interleaving, which challenges learners and promotes deeper understanding.
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It is important to note that not all testing is created equal when it comes to the testing effect. In order to maximize its benefits, testing should be spaced out over time (rather than crammed into one study session). This is called spaced-practice. To increase learning effectiveness a practice test should be accompanied by feedback that helps learners correct their mistakes and reinforce correct information. These important learning concepts are built into our learning modules which offer spaced-practice and emphasize feedback following each practice.
Björk's concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ has important implications for educators and learners alike. The testing effect and interleaving are two effective strategies for creating desirable difficulties and can promote deeper understanding and long-term retention of knowledge. Ultimately, by understanding and leveraging the power of desirable difficulties, we can help learners to achieve greater success and mastery in their chosen subjects.
Currently we have learning modules for Social Studies 20, Social Studies 30, Biology 20, and Biology 30 for Alberta students with more courses in development. All of our modules apply the principles for learning explored in this blog post. Check out these modules at https://www.kctlearning.ca/shop
Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World, 3(2), 13-19.
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56-64). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20-27. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003
Carpenter, S. K., & Pashler, H. (2007). Testing beyond words: Using tests to enhance visuospatial map learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(3), 474-478. doi: 10.3758/BF03194084
Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). Feedback enhances the positive effects and reduces the negative effects of multiple-choice testing. Memory & Cognition, 36(3), 604-616. doi: 10.3758/MC.36.3.604