Desirable Difficulties: When Harder is Better for Learning - Scott H Young - Deepstash
Desirable Difficulties: When Harder is Better for Learning - Scott H Young

Desirable Difficulties: When Harder is Better for Learning - Scott H Young

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A key strategy for getting better at things is hill-climbing: Try different things, keep doing the things that work, stop doing those that don’t.

The strategy is named because you can envision it as finding the highest spot in a landscape filled with fog. You can’t necessarily see the highest point, but you can always walk uphill.

Most of the time, this approach works fairly well. It likely explains how we get better at many things simply by doing them repeatedly. Where this strategy runs into trouble, however, is when you need to do something worse before you can do it better.


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Getting Worse Before Getting Better

Getting Worse Before Getting Better

Interestingly, learning itself seems to be one of these situations where we need to do worse before we can do better.

The actions that improve your short-term performance on a task don’t always create much long-term improvement. Since short-term effects are easier to notice, this can create a trap.

Students choose strategies that make them feel like they’re learning the material but fail miserably when the exam comes.


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Desirable Difficulties

Desirable Difficulties

Desirable difficulties are actions that appear to work worse in the short-term but work better in the long run.

These include:

Spacing. Practising something ten times in a row vs. ten times spaced out (over hours or days). The latter feels harder but results in more permanent memory.

Variability.  Intuition argues for mastering one thing before moving on to the next, but research suggests otherwise. Variable practice tends to result in better retention and transfer than blocked practice.


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Testing Yourself

Testing Yourself

Should you re-read or do practice questions? Students overwhelmingly favour re-reading as a learning strategy. However, practice testing is one of the most effective learning methods that has been systematically studied, while re-reading is one of the worst.


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We Remember Everything

We Remember Everything

What we learn is never erased from our minds. Instead, we forget things as our ability to retrieve them becomes weaker through competition with other memories.

Successful access to hard-to-recall memory boosts retrieval strength more than if the memory was easier to access. It’s as if your brain is saying, “Whoa! That was important and I barely remembered it! Better strengthen that connection.” Easy memory access (say because you just immediately learned it or had the answer in front of you) sends the opposite signal, with correspondingly less benefit.


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Mixing Concepts And Ideas

Mixing Concepts And Ideas

When you mix practice between two similar ideas or concepts, you’re better able to notice the difference between the two.

This discriminative account in favour of variable practice holds true for many problem-solving skills. Math problems are often taught in a blocked fashion. You learn some problem type and do it repeatedly until you’re good at it. Then, you move on to a different type of problem and repeat the same process. The issue with this blocked approach is that it doesn’t let you practice telling apart the different types of problems because, in each case, it’s obvious.


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Not All Difficulties Are Desirable

Cognitive load theory points out that many activities which increase the effort involved in learning tend to result in worse outcomes for typical students. These activities include solving problems you haven’t been taught how to solve, having to split your attention between different sources of information to understand an idea, or having redundant information you need to ignore to get at the answer.


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A Little Difficulty Is A Good Thing

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