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