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:
disflue ncy 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:
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:
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.
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