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Science on Learning: Desirable Difficulties

The hard way is the best way.

This is the fifth article in a series examining how cognitive science provides empirical support to the methods of a classical education through a set of principles about learning. The former articles in this series can be found here, here, here, and here. This week we will move to a fifth principle about how we can help learning stick for the long term: Learning endures when it is practiced—deliberately, spaced, and varied.

Since the essential condition for learning is thought, wise educational designers will put students in the best circumstances possible to help make learning last. That is best achieved through practice. Not just any type of practice, however; there are three evidence-based kinds of practice that lead to more enduring learning: spaced practice, interlevaving, and deliberate practice.

First off, learning is more lasting when material is practiced spaced out across time. In other words, while cramming for that test might help you in the moment, because it was put in so quickly it will also fade quickly. Instead of promoting an intense review for what they need tomorrow, step back and spread out practice over longer intervals, even years.

Secondly, learning is more effective when you vary the form of practice (this is what is referred to as interleaved practice). That means you do not simply do the same motion or task again and again without any changes in between. Instead, a review worksheet that has one question on skill A with the next item on skill B, another on skill A, then one on skill C, and so forth, will force the learner to think about the material more deeply. Instead of doing a worksheet that addresses only items on the Pythagorean Theorem, mixing in a few others is a good way to ensure learners must think deeply about the problem and what is calls for.

Finally, effective practice is deliberate in that it is purposeful and systematic. K. Anders Ericsson has provided perhaps the best summary of deliberate practice and in that he outlines four essential components for engaging in deliberate practice:

  1. The learner must be motivated to focus on the task and put forth effort to improve.
  2. The task should be designed in light of the learner’s prior knowledge.
  3. The learner should receive immediate feedback on performance and how to improve.
  4. The task should be repeatedly performed.

You may have noticed that not all of these sound easy, nor necessarily fun. That is correct! Each fits under the category cognitive scientists label as desirable difficulties. They are harder in the moment, but they lead to learning that lasts. In that way, such difficulties as spacing out your practice, interleaving the types of challenges learners work on, and providing deliberate practice to enhance learning are helpful.

So, what can we do to integrate this principle into the classroom?

  • Adhere to the classical pedagogical maxim repetitio mater memoriae.

Provide daily opportunities to review past material and practice key skills you want students to learn. Repetition is the mother of memory and mixing in practice each day that is varied and deliberate will space out learning over time, leading to learning that lasts.

  • Consider opportunities to leverage a spiral curriculum approach.

Simply by ensuring your learners will experience similar topics over time, you will enhance the likelihood that their learning will endure. A spiral curriculum is a great approach to doing just that since it revisits the same topics, spaced across time, at increasing depth. Ask yourself, “Do my learners have the opportunity to interact with this idea again, in greater depth?” Capitalizing on those opportunities will put your learners in a position to retain their new knowledge.

Ericsson, K.A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.
Rohrer, D. (2012). Interleaving helps students distinguish among similar concepts. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3): 355-367.

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