Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning

Author: Elizabet Bjork, Robert Bjork

Year: 2011

Paper Description

This chapter takes the form of an interview with cognitive scientists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork. In this brief summary they describe the plight of the learner (using their students as an example) with ineffective study habits and little awareness of why they cannot retain/recall key information when needed. They describe the desirable difficulties which, although they appear to be barriers to learning and the retention of information, can be a powerful aid, under the right conditions.

Key Takeaway 1

One of the biggest challenges in learning is knowing whether we are actually learning something effectively. We can be misled by our own subjective impressions, as well as by our current performance.

For example, if we reread a chapter in a textbook, we might feel like we understand it better the second time around. However, this feeling of familiarity does not necessarily mean that we actually understand the material. Similarly, if we can easily recall a piece of information, we might think that we have learned it well. However, this is not always the case. It is possible that we are only able to recall the information because of cues that are present in the study situation, but that are unlikely to be present at a later time.

We can also be misled by our current performance. Some conditions of learning can lead to rapid improvements in performance, but these improvements may not last in the long term. For example, if we cram for a test, we might be able to perform well on the test itself. However, we are likely to forget the information quickly after the test. On the other hand, conditions of learning that create challenges and slow the rate of apparent learning often lead to better long-term retention and transfer.

Key Takeaway 2

Interleaving is a learning technique where you practice different things in a mixed order instead of focusing on one thing at a time. It may seem like blocking, or practicing one thing at a time, is better for learning in the short term, but research has shown that interleaving actually leads to better long-term retention and transfer of skills. Researchers believe that interleaving enhances long-term retention and transfer because it forces learners to notice similarities and differences among the things they are learning. This results in the encoding of higher-order representations, which are easier to remember and apply to new situations. Interleaving also forces learners to reload memories, which is thought to foster learning and transfer.

Standout Quote

“Any activities that involve testing yourself—that is, activities that require you to retrieve or generate information, rather than just representing infor-
mation to yourself—will make your learning both more durable and flexible.”


memory, retrieval practice, cognitive science, brain, learning, remembering, knowledge, maintenance, thinking, forgetting, disuse, recognition, context, cognitive psychology, encoding, desirable difficulties, transfer