The phrase “desirable difficulties” was first coined in the nineties by psychologist Robert Bjork to describe learning conditions that introduced inconveniences to yield greater learner retention of material. According to the literature, the more work that is required to learn a concept, the greater the mastery (Sparks, 2011). To illustrate, a classical example of a desirable difficulty is found in the use of flashcards as study tools. Flashcards typically display only partial information, as a cue for the user to recall a more complete set of facts. When compared to lecture notes, flashcards require a student to work harder in recalling materials and are therefore especially effective study tools. As such, flashcards have been popular among students for decades.
Classroom technology and online education has grown significantly in the years since Bjork introduced the concept of desirable difficulty. Surveys suggest that students choose online courses because of convenience (Sanford, Ross, Rosenbloom, & Singer, 2017). Convenience is a factor that is at odds with the notion of desirable difficulty. In fact, the most convenient definition of “convenience” (accessed online through a Google search) describes the term as “being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty”. The convenience that is celebrated in online applications appears to conflict with best practices to optimize student learning.
To support meaningful student learning, instructors face challenges to find appropriate tools to introduce desirable difficulty into classroom environments that are prized for convenience.
Setting the stage
Difficulties and inconveniences are seldom viewed as assets in any context; therefore, promoting inconveniences in any classroom presents a challenge. However, explaining the rationale and objectives behind course activities has long been considered a best practice. When it comes to introducing desirable difficulties, explaining the rationale (improved mastery) becomes especially critical in classrooms designed for convenience. This might mean setting the stage by introducing students to literature that explains the value of desirable difficulties. Students then gain an understanding that some inconveniences are designed to promote learning.
A discussion board in which students are challenged to independently discover and share research or experiences about desirable difficulties can help bring the point home. While such information could be provided by the instructor, by requiring student effort in independent research and discovery, the assignment itself engulfs students in desirable difficulties to promote ownership and learning.
Print and desirable difficulties
At the risk of stating the obvious, materials in the online classroom are frequently available online or in digital form. This is a trend that affects both online and face-to-face classrooms as a growing proportion of textbook sales are now digital. Much like the online classroom itself, digital textbooks are celebrated for their convenience.
However, research suggests that reading paper texts promotes better retention of subject matter (Singer & Alexander, 2016). If instructors wish to promote greater retention of material, then the value of printed text should be considered. At the extreme, an instructor might exercise the option of making all course learning materials available only through the bookstore in printed format. This shift may present a difficulty for instructors themselves, especially ones who update coursework on a regular basis. While the benefits of desirable difficulties in learning is well-established, there is no research that suggests desirable difficulties for instructors improves student learning.
The literature also suggests that handwritten information is retained better than that which is recorded using a keyboard (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). That is, course activities which involve handwritten work will yield deeper learning of the material.
A moderate solution might combine the benefits of printed reading material and handwriting in principal assignments. A single assignment can incentivize both the practice of printing material and writing by hand. Students may be asked to complete a project that requires the submission of images of printed pages of the course reading, with handwritten annotations in the margins. Mobile phones are excellent tools for capturing such images.
One emerging approach in desirable difficulty involves the use of interesting fonts. Unfamiliar fonts that are difficult to read introduce desirable difficulty and improve retention of material. Research suggests that familiar fonts are relatively easy to process, Hatternschweiler and Italicized Comic Sans, however, introduce desirable difficulties (Cary, 2011). In a more recent development, a font called Sans Forgetica has been released as a font designed specifically for the purpose of introducing a desirable difficulty and making the material it expresses hard to forget.
From personal experience, even something as insignificant as a change in familiar fonts can sharpen concentration skills. In writing, errors that were formerly invisible grow horrifically evident when transferred over into a new font or format during an editing process.
Online classrooms and their associated technological tools are constantly evolving. Even in the context of these changes, the value of desirable difficulties to learning will remain. And even in convenient classrooms, there are opportunities to include these tools.
Cary, B. (2011). Come on. I thought I knew that! New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/health/19mind.html
Mueller, P. & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop notetaking. Pscyhological Science 25(6). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581
Sanford, D., Ross, D., Rosenbloom, A., & Singer, D. (2017). Course convenience, perceived learning and course satisfaction across course formats. E-Journal of Business Education & Scholarship of Teaching 11(1). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1167321.pdf
Singer, L., & ALexander, P. (2016). Reading across mediums: Effects of reading digital and print texts on comprehension and calibration. The Journal of Experimental Education. 85 (1). https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2016.1143794
Sparks, S. (2011). Studies find ‘desirable difficulties’ help students learn. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/04/27/29stability-2.h30.html
Miriam Bowers-Abbott is an assistant professor and the Academic Department Leader for the Humanities at Mount Carmel College of Nursing.