“Desirable Difficulties”, Part 2 (or a retroactive Part 1?)

Not much to add from yesterday’s post, except to point you toward another great discussion of the pedagogical opportunities provided by “desirable difficulties.” This time, David Gooblar, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (and an instructor at Augustana College, yesssss!) provides some additional details for the kinds of moves you can make to provide opportunities for students to develop their storage memory for deeper learning. So, if you haven’t read Maryellen Weimer’s piece on desirable difficulties that I reblogged yesterday, great!  Read this one first, and then check out how Weimer recommends approaches to approaching student buy-in for a teaching approach that causes students to struggle (productively) on purpose.

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September 10, 2014

Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives or share more teaching tips in our new group.

Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.

It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.

When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.

The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”–learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.

All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.

I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology:

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“Desirable difficulties?” Try telling that to students…

"This teacher is getting on my last nerve..."
In the John Hughes ’80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we see why Ferris ditches school: his history teacher (played with deadpan brilliance by Ben Stein) stymies, bores and infuriates a classroom full of students through a mind-numbingly repetitive and monotone lecture, punctuated with the worst attempts at coaxing student involvement ever.  Ironically, we know that students in the early stages of their college education actually prefer to receive information passively, served up by teachers with expertise. This is largely due to their less-developed stage of learning, and increasingly aggravated by public high school teaching that is designed to move through required content quickly and efficiently. However, to move students to higher orders of thinking and learning — application, critical analysis, creative synthesis — we need to get them to take more ownership of their learning process. Which is hard — especially when students are first faced with this demand in areas of study new to them.

As you might be aware, the benefits of student struggle in the learning process has a sound basis in cognitive psychology. Robert Bjork of UCLA, who studies processes of learning and forgetting, distinguishes between “retrieval memory,” or the easy, immediate accessibility of information, and “storage memory,” or the longer-term ability to retain and recall information. Since the latter is the product of deeper learning, the objective becomes facilitating learning that boosts storage strength as well as retrieval strength. Bjork’s research developed the concept of “desirable difficulties,” beneficial struggles in the learning process that can result in deeper learning.

For instance, pedagogical moves such as frequent quizzes and tests, active problem-solving, and varying the locations where learning takes place are examples of desirable difficulties that prior research links to effective learning.

Of course, as the video statement from Bjork above points out (did you skip it??? go ahead, watch it… I’ll wait…), there is a bit of a dilemma here: students enjoy a rapid, easy improvement in performance (due to the triggering of retrieval memory), but the slower, more troublesome learning process that actually leads to optimal learning can be frustrating to students.

The Teaching Professor Blog‘s Maryellen Weimer discusses how we might respond to this dilemma: how do we help students get beyond “teach me, and make it easy!” to accept the desirable difficulties of student-driven learning? In brief, the way we frame these experiences for students is key to their success.

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2014

“She Didn’t Teach. We Had to Learn it Ourselves.”

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”

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Learning From Our Limitations: “Flip Turns With Students”

How has it been over two weeks since my last blog post?

Leave it to a spring midterms crunch to squeeze out the long view. It’s good to be back.

My recent struggles with perennial obstacles — namely, maintaining timely grading feedback when multitasking several service responsibilities compels, and maintaining my cool during a possible academic integrity violation by a student — remind me of my human limitations as a professional educator. It seems karmic that this moment is when I ran across this article from AAC&U’s winter issue of Liberal Education.

Kate Queeney, on the chemistry faculty at Smith College, contributes this reminder of our need to be mindful of the disconnect between our comfortable expertise in the subjects we teach and the difficulties some of our students face grasping that which comes so easily to us. She also reminds us of ho much we can learn from those we teach, if only we take the time.

Whether it’s Easter, Passover, the recent last-minute completion of your tax return or just some nicer spring weather you celebrate, enjoy this holiday weekend!

Liberal Education Winter 2014 cover image

Winter 2014, Vol. 100, No. 1

Flip Turns with Students

By Kate Queeney


A few years after I began teaching, I realized that I had something to learn: the flip turn. I was training for a triathlon and thought I was ready to graduate to turning like a “real swimmer.” When YouTube video tutorials and advice from other swimmers failed to overcome my limitations as a kinesthetic learner, I hired Marly.

A talented swimmer in college, Marly aspired to be a college swim coach. She was a graduate student in the coaching program at the college where I teach. I sometimes swam in the morning when she was coaching a masters swim team of adult swimmers, shouting encouragement with frightening enthusiasm for such an early hour.

I had met Marly in a different context, when she took introductory chemistry with me during her first undergraduate semester. Marly struggled in that class. I vividly remember her sitting hunched in her chair with an intent and slightly panicked look on her face. There’s a student like Marly in my introductory-level class every year or so—someone who is there every day, who tries to do the work on her own but gets lost, who will never ask a question in class, and who just doesn’t believe that she is capable of “doing” chemistry. The class must seem insurmountable from her perspective, and so this student opts for what I can only imagine (based on my own experience with a nightmarish graduate school class) is a miserable game of survival.

I’d never spoken with Marly about her experience in chemistry after she finished my class, so I’m only guessing what it was like for her. But my sense of her experience made me nervous about approaching her for one-on-one instruction. In the end, though, my competitive instinct triumphed. I needed to learn this, and Marly could teach me.

[more after the jump!]

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