the cedar ledge

Making Things Hard On Yourself, But In A Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties To Enhance Learning

Date: May 25 2020

Summary: How increasing difficulties in learning can increase better long-term learning. Examples included.

Keywords: ##bibliography ##finish #performance #learning #forgetting #retrieval #strength #storage #generation #effect #archive


E. L. Bjork, R. A. Bjork, and others, "Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning," Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, vol. 2, no. 59 - 68, 2011.

Table of Contents

  1. How To Cite
  2. References
  3. Discussion:

Difficulties which can encourage learning:

  1. Varied learning conditions as opposed to constant and predictable ones.

  2. Interleaving instruction on separate topics together.

  3. Spacing study sessions on a given topic.

  4. Using tests as study events. [1]

Learning how to learn is the ultimate survival tool.

Rather do not fret over inputs but rather, output. Consolidate reading material from memory. Get with others to drill one another with questions. Activites that test your ability to generate explications yields more robust learning experiences.

Memory does not function like a video recorder. Reviewing the same material ad nauseam is not effective for memory. Learning involves attaching novel information to what is known by oneself.

Generating an explanation about a topic rather than just being given a solution can be more effective than the spacing effect. This is called the generation effect.

Learning difficulties which are desirable trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support storage strength. If the learner is unable to successfully handle presented difficulties, they become impediments rather than helps to learning.

Retrieval strength explains the ease in accessing a representation of a specific memory in the brain. It is signficantly affected by factors such as cues and recency of exposure to a material related to that representation.

Studying the same material in two different rooms rather the same room leads to increased recall of that material. [2]

Interleaved practice produces higher quality prolonged retention and promotes skill transferability. In comparison to blocked practice and other sorts of mass practicing. [3]

Blocked practice is deceptive; it is not the best form of learning though it can appear to be so. [3]

It is suggested that interleaving material forces one to differentiate between different topics. When pressured, this can heighten one's perception about differentiators. It leads to better embedding of abstractions that foster retention and transfer. [3]

Participants in a motor skills test received 18 patterned trials via a pinball-like machine set-up. Participants were presented with randomly determined patterns (interleaved) or individual patterns that were practiced consecutively (blocked) on the machine. Blocked participants quickly improved versus interleaved participants. After a 10 day break, participants retested under blocked or interleaved conditions. Presented random conditions, the original interleaved participants performed superior to the blocked participants. Blocked participants appeared to have learned nothing. Presented blocked conditions, results were approximately the same but the minimal differences favored interleaving. [3]

Testing is seen as a means of quantitative assessment but not for learning purposes. This is in contradiction to the fact that testing can be highly a highly beneficial tool for learning rather than a measurement of learning taking place.

8 and 12 year olds practiced tossing beanbags at a target on the floor while having their vision blocked at each throw. Half of each age group practiced throwing at a fixed distance target. The rest threw at targets of varying distances. After sufficient practices and a break, all children were tested under fixed target conditions for their age group. Children who practiced at variable distances performed better than fixed target participants. Introducing variation outmatched benefits of fixed distance practice. [4]

How To Cite

Zelko, Jacob. Making Things Hard On Yourself, But In A Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties To Enhance Learning. May 25 2020.


[1] R. A. Bjork, “Memory and metamemory considerations in the,” Metacognition Knowing Knowing, vol. 185, 1994.

[2] S. M. Smith, A. Glenberg, and R. A. Bjork, “Environmental context and human memory,” Memory & Cognition, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 342–353, Jul. 1978, doi: 10.3758/BF03197465.

[3] J. B. Shea and R. L. Morgan, “Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill.” J. Exp. Psychol. [Hum. Learn.], vol. 5, no. 2, p. 179, 1979.

[4] R. Kerr and B. Booth, “Specific and varied practice of motor skill,” Percept. Mot. Skills, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 395–401, 1978.


CC BY-SA 4.0 Jacob Zelko. Last modified: January 17, 2023. Website built with Franklin.jl and the Julia programming language.