Desirable Difficulty

Desirable Difficulty

A little “desirable difficulty” is good for memory noted Ruth Graham, Boston Globe correspondent, in an article on May 25. “Desirable difficulty.” Sound like an oxymoron?

Actually, according to Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist who coined the phrase about twenty years ago, making learning more difficult can make the information stick. Recently, two researchers (Mueller of Princeton and Oppenheimer of UCLA) published a study supporting this idea. With a group of college students, they studied the results of note-taking using the laptop and note-taking by hand. You would not be surprised that the keyboard made the task easier, but in many cases the lecture was recorded almost word for word. Those taking the notes by hand, while performing a more difficult task, had to make decisions about what was important and summarize as they went along. Results showed that thirty minutes after the lecture those taking notes by hand performed significantly better in remembering both factual and conceptual elements. Even when tested a week later, the group that had hand-written notes performed better, especially in conceptual areas. In his original study, Bjork found that making learning harder is sometimes advantageous . He found that when presented with information in hard-to-read fonts the students remembered it better at a later time. Sometimes easier is not better. Examples of “desirable difficulty” are seen in other areas as well as Malcolm Gladwell points out in citing that exceptionally successful people may have had a difficult childhood and that many famous, successful people have dyslexia.

Technology makes things easier, but there may be drawbacks as well.  Memory may have taken a hit. No one remembers phone numbers anymore because they are all stored in cell phones or auto-dial. With the easy access of search engines, people are not as likely to learn information because they can access it so easily.

So I have no snappy conclusion, but “desirable difficulty” is a concept to ponder!

© Dorothy C. Judd

Next post: Thursday, June 5th


About twofelines

What to say? I love my family and friends. I also love kids, cats, and books. Oh, and potato chips and Cheez-its. I am a retired teacher who still loves to be in the classroom, so now I am a substitute teacher.
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One Response to Desirable Difficulty

  1. Ann says:

    I agree completely with taking notes by hand, going home and distilling the notes down to 3×5 cards, so that a key word or date or name reminds the student (me) of tons of information and opinions. There’s a physical basis for this: V.A.K.T. Everyone has a distinct learning/memorization style. Students rarely memorize any more, except for song lyrics perhaps. I have a grandson who remembers whatever he reads. I have a grandson who doesn’t remember what he hears. I have one daughter and one grandchild with dyslexia. The daughter with dyslexia graduated from college with honors, and majored in English. Oh! The V.A.K.T – ways of learning – are visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic. One of my grad school “gems.”

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