Posted in learning, Photography, Psychology

Effortful Learning: Desirable Difficulties

This post is the beginning of a set of blogs that focus on one topic, analyzing effortful learning. It will be divided into three sections; this first post will examine the components of desirable difficulty.

Traditional and most today’s education is composed of teacher-centered methods focusing on mechanical or habitual learning and memorization, and then is applied to standardized testing resulting in grades. Because of this teacher-centered method, teachers stand in front of a class, with a well-organized slideshow, and lecture by reading off the slides, while the students listen, with the hopes of learning. After several lectures, students cram for multiple choice exams, receiving passable grades (ranging from a D to an A). This educational system, works for both most faculty and students, where students get a degree at the end, but how much of the information that they cram, do they learn, and remember a few semesters, months or even years later? Probably not! And what about those few select students who want to do more than passing a class and get a degree, they want to remember, learn, and gain knowledge that will last them for more than a semester, month or a year.

Because “learning is the process of acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences,” it requires time and effort, and cannot be done effortlessly. To alleviate this problem of effortless learning, and give those select student’s methods to learn and recall it at any time, desirable difficulties is introduced.

Desirable difficulties is a learning task that requires a large amount of effort and desire for more effective learning, resulting in long-term knowledge. The purpose is to make the individual struggle and have difficulty with learning novel or complex information, resulting in more attention and memory being involved, causing longer retention of that information. Both the desire and difficulty are executed by 6 components: differentiated instruction, disfluency effect, organizational effect, testing effect, spacing effect, and delayed feedback.

Differentiated instruction (AKA Differentiated learning) is where variety is provided within learning and teaching. Variety can be achieved using different methods. Varying the content being taught, how the information is presented, the product or result, or the environment of where the information is being presented to reflect more flexibility; all of which promote alertness, and interactivity and increase learning. An example of differentiated instruction is the notion of classrooms:


The lecture hall is a fixed environment that promotes passive learning and listening, while the flexible environment of roundtables invites discussion, interaction and active learning.

The second component: disfluency effect (AKA cognitive disfluency) is purposely making information and material more difficult to comprehend. Typically with familiar and easy to read information, attention is lower, resulting in passive learning.  When information is unfamiliar or difficult to read, more attention provided, resulting in active cognitive processes. Some examples of disfluency could be as simple as making the text a more difficult to read font, as complex as the perception of people towards the familiar or unfamiliar material, resulting in biased and influenced response. One study by Adam Alter involved the perception of names. When names were familiar and simple to the participants, they responded more positively to the people with names like Tom, Jim, Alice. While with names that were unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce, participants responded negatively to names like Latifah, Itzel, and Chadwick.  Often what occurs is that with either fluency or disfluency of material can change the cognitive processes that are typically used on the target, in other words, if it is a difficult task, then a type of meta cognition signal occurs, and more attention occurs. An example of this is the typography style of this paragraph. 

The third component is the organizational effect. This effect (as discussed in a previous blog) is described as organizing, summarizing, and bullet pointing their own material and research; rather than just memorization or relying on the professor to structure the material or lecture. The student as they organize and structure their own material while in the process struggle with difficulty to put a large amount of unorganized material into a clear and readable structure. Resulting in more familiarity with the material, and allowing it to be better ingrained in your Long Term Memory (LTM) for later recall.  An example of this organizational effect is this Chinese Proverb:

Teach Them To Fish Quote Creative Participatory Employment Plans That Work

This proverb (I believe) applies to learn and teaching as well, rather than having the teacher do all the work while the student learns passively for a semester, have the student do all the work so that he can remember the material for a lifetime.

The fourth component, the testing effect is the idea that recalling and self-testing and relating novel information to previously gained knowledge strengthen recall, and resulting in better retrieval, rather than just rereading over reviewing the material. The testing effect is mostly associated with memory processes, relating to the overheard phrase of “practice makes perfect”. To remember something, it must be recalled and strengthened the testing effect, much like memory is often associated with the idea of a file cabinet, where once the information is encoded, it can be accessed at any time. This is not true; it is more like a muscle. Only through practice, and repetition can the muscle (memory or testing effect) be strengthened, and it must be recalled over time, to keep its strength, if not, it slowly gets weaker. To strength the material, students first must struggle with the material causing active learning and long-term retention.


Our brain (memory) is not like a filing cabinet, it is like a muscle.

The fifth component is the spacing effect (AKA spaced repetition). This effect occurs when information is retrieved at spaced intervals before or now that is it forgotten, rather than one time, typically right before the information is needed. By doing so, the information is retrieved more regularly, becoming more familiar. This like the previously mentioned components can be difficult to do, but when it is difficult, the information becomes strengthened and can be actively retrieved easier. An analogy of this spacing effect is a yoyo:81jS21RCVRL._SY355_

Like a yoyo, when a novice starts out, it is difficult to throw the yoyo to the end of the string and to catch it successfully, but with practice, and persistence, the novice can throw the yoyo to the end of the string and catch it successfully. With even more practice, the novice becomes an expert and can perform tricks where the yoyo remains at the end of the string in a sleeper position. Information is the same way, with more recall or practice the information can retain its position and strength over time.

The final component is delayed feedback. We all know that feedback is critical to learning, improvement, as well as learning from failures and relishing in success. But like testing and spacing effect, delayed feedback is where a student refrains from immediately reviewing answers, to partially forget them, only to review the feedback at a delayed time. This results in (like the spacing effect) the wrong answers or feedback in more encoded and strengthened over time, because of retrieval.

As you can see with all the different components of desirable difficulty, they are better and more effective when used collectively, rather than individually.

This week featured photo is of a difficult to read typography based mural. that is colorful and pack with detail and imagery that makes many people slow down during their busy days, to admire the graffiti.


Alter, A. (2017). DISFLUENCY | [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].

Caswell, J. and Tomlinson, C. (2003). A Differentiated Way to Think about Teaching. The English Journal, 92(4), p.93. (2017). Desirable difficulty. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Learning. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Traditional education. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].

McGarry, K. (2017). Ikea’s Value of Learning.. [online] Cognitive mindset. Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].

Schmidt, R. and Bjork, R. (1992). New Conceptualizations of Practice: Common Principles in Three Paradigms Suggest New Concepts for Training. Psychological Science, 3(4), pp.207-218.

Tomlinson, C. (2017). Differentiated Instruction. In: C. Callahan and H. Hertberg-Davis, ed., Fundamentals of Gifted Education: Considering Multiple Perspectives. Routledge, pp.287-298.


Posted in learning, Photography, Psychology

Are Learners Actually Learning?

It seems like the current state of education (especially post-secondary education) is coming to a crossroads. Teaching first can be traced back to the great Greek Teacher Confucius (561 BC). The teacher is seen as an authority figure, where they stand in front of an audience of students, telling them to “sit down, shut up, and listen”, while they read their lecture from PowerPoint slides, almost like a performance given by the teacher. There are over 50 billion webpages that has been indexed through Google yesterday! So, with such enormous amounts of information, I think we stand at crossroads in post-secondary education because teachers were used to access information, and expertise, but it seems like we don’t need teachers to access information, and do they really provide us expertise, or are they just a part of traditions and use social expectations? I believe so, because based on the science behind learning, it appears that with traditional teaching methods, is it possible that teachers are learning more than their students in the classroom? Yes, and here’s why.

Learning is defined as “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught”. In the science of learning, one way that the student learns is through the organizational effect, but who organizes the material and puts it into a nice neat package with a bow on top, that is then presented to students, for them to passively learn or memorize… the teacher. Learning is better acquired through the spacing effect where studying is spread out over time, and who reviews material throughout the semester rather than just passively taking notes, which will be reviewed and crammed into a short amount of time… the teacher. Learning is increased when during the learning process, feedback and testing provides more learning because of the testing effect, and who received the most proper feedback through the method of questions and clarifications during lectures… the teacher. Finally, learner is negatively impacted by a psychological effect known as Digital Amnesia, or more commonly known as the google effect, where there is a tendency to forget information that can be instantly found on the internet, which can often result in a lack of learning and increases in memorization, and who uses the internet more to review and memorize information rather than understanding it and teaching it over a longer period… the students! With all it appears to me that teachers are learning more than the students. But how can we reverse this, so that students are learning more than the teachers… Reverse Mentoring is the solution.

mentoringReverse Mentoring occurs when the student becomes the teacher, and the teacher then becomes the student. This utopian concept is a unique way to approach learning and education, because when the student becomes the teacher, societal norms, labels and expectations are broken. This is because the student who is never considered to be the authority figure, adopts the authoritative role, which allows the student to teach the less informed, find their voice as an authoritative figure, and especially, reflect on what they know in terms of knowledge and understanding.

In addition to the authoritative role reversal, fluidity between the student and the teacher is kept, because not only can both parties understand the other’s point of view but they both develop on skills and gain tolerance for each other. Students typically sit passively in class, and teacher’s adept an authoritative position that can make them appear unreliable (which is the furthest thing from the truth, because teachers were once students).

iStock_000020048166_smallIn addition to personal and relationship development and growth, reverse mentoring causes a larger and desperately needed change… Active learning for the learners, not the teachers! This is because when the students become the teachers they organize the material, providing the information over a spaced period of time, is given feedback when the teacher doesn’t understand the material, and they students must know and understand the material in order to relay it to someone else.  For the students who lack learning and knowledge on a skill or topic, maybe the best way for them to learn, if for the students to become the teachers for the students to learn. Concluding that it is the student who is teaching is learning more as a teacher than as a student, not the student who is learning.

For this week’s featured image, I present the only person that I would switch perspective with… my sister Nicole. She is 6 years younger than me, in nursing school, and acts like she is the older sister, that has her life all figured out. I would love her to gain my perspective, and vice versa.


Chaudhuri, S. and Ghosh, R. (2011). Reverse Mentoring: A Social Exchange Tool for Keeping the Boomers Engaged and Millennials Committed. Human Resource Development Review, 11(1), pp.55-76.

Chen, Y. (2013). Effect of Reverse Mentoring on Traditional Mentoring Functions. Leadership and Management in Engineering, 13(3), pp.199-208.

de Kunder, M. (2017). | The size of the World Wide Web (The Internet). [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Google effect. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Testing effect. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2017].

Hirsch, S. (2017). History of Teaching As a Profession | Synonym. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2017].

McGarry, K. (2017). Ikea’s Value of Learning.. [online] Cognitive mindset. Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Definition of LEARNING. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2017].

Morris, L. (2017). Reverse Mentoring: Untapped Resource in the Academy?. Innovative Higher Education, 42(4), pp.285-287.

Pesavento, T. (2017). When Students Become teachers. [Blog] Go Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2017].



Posted in learning, Psychology

Liquid Networking

Liquid being is an art exhibit currently at the university of Lethbridge. There was one art piece that really struck me (in a psychological way).


This art piece is like associative learning. Individual cones are interconnected into the next cone, and leads to the next; resulting in a fluid and intricate track. If the cones were used individually, they would hardly hold any water, other than a few droplets on the surface; when the cones are interconnected creating a track which can hold and carry large amounts of water from one location, to another. Thus, being more effective when placed together, rather than individually. Through associative learning, pieces of information that are interconnected to each other become more durable and effective in their function, compared to individual pieces that are separate from one another.

Simply put, associative learning is a learning principle that states that ideas and experiences reinforce each other and can be mentally linked to one another. In a nutshell, it means our brains are not designed to recall information in isolation, so we group information together for better recall. Part of associative learning is associative memory; defined as the ability to learn and remember the relationship between unrelated items. This is typically done by associating a fact or information to you personally, making it more memorable.  By using associative learning and memory, or linking ideas and information together (like the cones), the information is encoded deeper, thus stored in long-term memory.

Typically, with associative memory, having multiple inputs of information or connections during the encoding stage results in deeper storing f information, making the memory stronger and easier to recall later, which as we know can produce more effective learning that is associated with more information than a term or fact or isolated piece of knowledge.

But in education, associative learning and memory, are subordinate strategies for studying and learning. For example, one of the go-to strategies for studying is flash cards, as it is the opposite of associative learning or dissociative learning (If there was such a thing).  With flashcards, you have a term or cue on one side, and on the other side you have the description, definition or information pertaining to that cue. When using flashcards, you remove the associations that are connected to that information. Flashcards only focus on pure memorization and/or recognition; not associative learning, knowledge or understanding.

So how can students learn more effectively and incorporate associative learning in their studies and education? One way is to build a connection with the information when it is presented. This can be done by students asking questions of “why am I learning this?”, “how does this class or information relate to me on a personal level or my chosen career?”; or by professors informing students not just what they will learn in their class but “why should students learn it”, or more abruptly “why should they [students] care?”. By asking and reflecting on such questions, it takes advantage of the usefulness portion of the MUSIC. Model of Motivation, creating intrinsic motivation. For students forced to take a class to meet a degree requirement, most students just try to pass the tests or assignments and don’t care about the information outside of the class or test. So, by finding parts of the class, information or skills that relate to the students on a more personal note, more associations are formed, and more effective learning occurs.

Another way that students can incorporate associative learning in their education is to relate to the information on a personal level. For students who can only answer the above questions with responses like “It was the only class available”, “it’s an easy A” “It’s a prerequisite”, or the ever popular ” because I have to, but don’t want to” tend not to have any motivation or interest in the information presented. So, with the course information, students can associate the information to personally, for better recall and understanding. For example, students are in an anatomy class, can relate the body parts and their functions to their own body and bodily functions.  Or if students are in a class where the information is dull and difficult to memorize, such techniques like gnomonic devices, made up or real-life stories experiences help remember the dull information better. By using such methods of associative learning, another layer of cues is created resulting in more effective storing of information.

So maybe by students and professors implementing such useful and associative strategies, it could result in more effective learning, to which our minds could metaphorically resemble an interconnected trail of cones that carry information more efficiently than any single, isolated cone, such as flashcards and pure memorization. By having such an intricate track of associated memories and learning, we can construct a beautiful image like the one seen underneath this trail of associated memory pieces (cones), and maybe just maybe, that beautiful image could represent the knowledge and understanding that has developed because of associative learning, like the one seen here:


For this week’s featured image is of my interpretation of what our minds could look like after the implementation of associative learning, that has been built up over time to create intricate networking of information that has been understood, collected and stored for future use and critical thinking.


Craik, F. and Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104(3), pp.268-294.

Shams, L. and Seitz, A. (2008). Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(11), pp.411-417.

Spanella, T. (2017). Associative Learning: Definition, Theory & Examples – Video & Lesson Transcript | [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Oct. 2017].

the free encyclopedia, W. (2017). Associative memory (psychology). [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Oct. 2017].

Wissman, K., Rawson, K. and Pyc, M. (2012). How and when do students use flashcards?. Memory, 20(6), pp.568-579.

Posted in learning, Psychology

The Reality of the Student-Teacher Relationship

Today (October 5th) is National Teachers Day, so in honor of this, I was planning on doing a blog post about student-teacher relationships and how it impacts learning, but after talking with my professor (you know who you are), I have a very different image. So, this blog will still examine the student-teacher relationship, but it will also give way to the recently discovered insight that I gained, by talking with my own professor.

For many students, especially in post-secondary education, they tend to only go and talk to a professor about grades. They will make an appointment typically, before, or after an exam or assignment is due and a good portion of the students won’t even make the effort to talk to their professor. This type of interaction or lack of interaction seems quite logical, because in primary school. The traditional relationship between students and teachers is established by authority. Teachers are worshiped and everything they say is golden. Moreover, seeing or interacting with a teacher outside the school is like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs (it’s just unnatural). Resulting in a lack of student-teacher communication, which impacts student learning.

One study that shines a light on this impact of learning through student-teacher relationship is explored by examining the core dimensions: control, trust and intimacy.

The idea of control, leads back to the position of authority that teachers hold, where students have no power in what they learn, or how they learn it, portraying the image of passive learning. But students don’t realize that they hold more power than they think, because if it wasn’t for students, there would be no need for teachers. By giving students control over their learning, you can empower them, and increase their motivation towards more active learning. This empowerment is established by giving the students the responsibility over their learning, rather than putting it in the hands of teachers.

By giving students this power, it creates a trust between the student and the teacher. The teacher is trusting the students to learn on their own, with passion and motivation. The students learn to trust the teacher more because the student feels like the teacher trust them, because they allowed the students to control their own learning. SO, with this established trust, it allows for more communication to flourish, thus creating a better student teacher relationship.

intimacy is defined as feelings of closeness and connection, so in regards to the student-teacher relationship. So, when there is shared control between the student and the teacher, both trust and intimacy (in term of closeness or a connection) will begin to bloom, thus increasing the students learning and motivation towards learning.

With this feedback, it seems that if teachers give students control over their learning, a better relationship and more communication will form, and with an open dialogue, students may be more willing to critic the teacher’s material and lectures. It sounds like an easy solution to a difficult problem, right? Wrong! even if students were given this control, there would still be a lot of students who will refuse to have an open dialogue with their teacher or professor, because some professors can be unapproachable, and portray the perspective of not caring for their students. One of the big issues with this solution, is that even if feedback were given, it probably wouldn’t change the way teachers or professors instruct.

With this idea of feedback, students would think that by giving feedback to their teachers of professors that it would result in a change in their teaching or the material, but with further research no feedback is used in this way.  At the University of Lethbridge, the faculty has a handbook that contains a large amount of useful information. A handbook such as this is typically for faculty eyes only. But with investigation I found something probably unknown to many students. In article 12 under the heading of “Teaching Effectiveness”, I can across a very interesting detail about student assessment. It states ” Effectiveness as a teacher may be assessed by a variety of means, including evaluation by fellow Faculty Members and through student appraisals though no assessment will be based mainly on student appraisals”. In other words, student evaluations and appraisals aren’t taken into consideration when evaluating a teacher. This quote shocked me, because shouldn’t a professor be graded by the students they are teaching? After reading this, it appears to me that this detail about teacher assessments are a way to safeguard the teachers, departments and the university. Leading to the conclusion although the university takes our money; professors, departments and the University don’t trust us to make the right decision in our own education.

On this note, I lead into the insight I have received from talking with my own professor regarding this topic, and education in general.

It seems like there is no point in writing about trying to improve the student teacher dialogue or relationship because it would not make any difference. I say this because teachers are so fixed on the context of their lectures and assignments that they don’t focus on the delivery of the material or how we are understanding the material. Even if teachers and professors were given an opportunity to change how they teach, if even it means less work for them, they would refuse. to which I repeat, teachers are only focused on going through and lecturing on as much material as possible, putting quantity of information over the quality of learning. With this reflection, it seems like the direction of education is going nowhere, so why try to change the system of education, if it can’t or doesn’t want to be changed. Not only is the system of education and the teachers to blame, I think the students are partly to blame as well. As students, we complain about a lack of change, and a lack of learning and quality education, but when students are faced with an opportunity to change or do something different, we fear it. For example, at my university I have this class that features no lectures and no exams, instead the students teach by doing talks, and we write a weekly blog. when students registered in the class, see this new way of learning, students are lost and even some drop out. Based on this, it seems like students are happy and content to be in this bubble where they think they are getting an education, and a degree to hang on the wall. Me personally, I am not content living in a bubble, especially when I know different. To put this in perspective, because of technology, we have access to every piece of information in the world. Decades ago, teachers and professors were the only form of access to information, to which it is now replaced by Wikipedia, and google scholar. So, it seems to me that, not only does teaching count for nothing, but maybe teaching is no longer needed.


Here are some good examples of teachers: Mrs Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Elizabeth Halsey from Bad Teacher.

But in honour of National Teachers Day, here is the perfect example of having control, trust, and intimacy with a teacher can result in open dialogue and the ideal student-teacher relationship. The featured photo is of one of the most influential teachers I have ever had: Mrs. Kathy Glasgo. She taught me not only academia, but life lessons, which I still carry to this day.


Dobransky, N. and Frymier, A. (2004). Developing teacher‐student relationships through out of class communication. Communication Quarterly, 52(3), pp.211-223.

Godsey, M. (2017). When the Internet Delivers Its Own Content, What’s Left for the Teacher?. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2017].

Jones, B. (2009). Motivating Students to Engage in Learning : The MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 21(2).

Martin, J. (2017). Academia: Can We Save Ourselves from Ourselves?. [online] Linkedin. Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2017].

Martin, J. (2017). Teaching and Education.