Feedback and desirable difficulties

Rene Kneyber

In this article I will discuss the connection between desirable difficulties and feedback. How can we use feedback to create better outcomes in the long term?

When we teach, we tend to make the learning process as smooth as possible. By giving clear instructions, students are successful, and thus more motivated and satisfied. But by using such an approach, performance in class may be good (students show mastery), but that does not necessarily mean result in mastery in the long term (e.g., for one of the next chapters).

In fact, oftentimes it is the other way around. Under certain conditions performance during lessons can be reduced to achieve greater results in the long term. These ‘conditions’ are called desirable difficulties.

Example of a desirable difficulty

An example of such a difficulty is to ask students to create a “brain dump”. Give them a blank sheet of paper and have them write down (without peer discussion or other help) everything they can remember from their previous lesson.

This is not necessarily fun. It will frustrate students because they cannot retrieve everything. Some may simply end up with a blank sheet. But the act of retrieval makes students remember the lesson material better, even if the retrieval attempt partly fails.

Instead of nicely wrapped gift, an escape room

Effective feedback is often considered as nicely wrapped, personalised gift. If you work hard as a feedback giver you can create the ultimate ‘gift’ for the students to unwrap. If you tell them exactly what to improve, students learn more. However, more recent research shows us that although this is an appealing thought. It’s actually not very effective for most learners. Effective feedback makes students think, before they act upon it. By making the instructions to clear, students think less and therefore learn less.

In short, effective feedback should feel more like an escape room and less like Christmas Eve.

In the following I will discuss different ways of organising feedback as desirable difficulties, and how that can improve student thinking .

Deliberately frustrating feedback

Receiving no feedback versus receiving feedback

As a student, you want to know: “Am I on the right track?” Indeed: if students receive immediate feedback after each task completed, they do better during class. And no doubt that makes them feel good. But researchers Fyfe & Rittle-Johnson (2017) found that students who received no feedback showed better mastery of the material learned after a week than the group who had received feedback, presumably because they were (cognitively) processing the assignments more deeply.

Afbeelding met tekst, schermopname, Lettertype, diagram Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

What is striking about their study, however, is that there was also a group that did extra poorly when they did not receive feedback. So for some students, not getting feedback was very good, but for others it was extra bad. According to Fyfe & Rittle-Johnson, this mainly had to do with prior knowledge already present. The more you know, the better to use “no feedback” as a strategy, since external feedback can get in the way of internal thinking mechanisms.

Precise and detailed feedback?

Suppose you are a student who has written an essay. How would you prefer to receive feedback on it? Most students will prefer to receive it as detailed as possible. The teacher has pointed out exactly what needs to be changed, and where you made language mistakes. Good, detailed feedback is also good for student satisfaction. And by giving focused and brief feedback, you increase the likelihood that more will be done with it.

But according to Dylan Wiliam, among others, that’s not necessarily the way to go. Because in the end, you don’t want a good product (the essay); you want students to get better at essay writing (a better producer)! Good feedback, therefore, encourages the learner to think profoundly, and thus has an element of frustration. You can achieve this, for example, by giving feedback based on criteria. Provide a list of criteria that a good essay should meet and give students 0, 1 or 2 points.

Or, for example, write all your comments on post-it’s and then give the essays and their corresponding post-it’s to groups and then have them figure out which post-it’s belong to which essay.


Another option discussed in Naomi Winstone’s book is the option of audio feedback. You record the spoken feedback, send it as a file to students, encouraging students to listen to it and actively incorporate your comments.

I’d listen to it and write my own comments and then I’d go back through it a second time looking at the notes I had written for each paragraph … and I’d think of things in my head that I could put (in). (Merry, & Orsmond, 2008, p. 4)

In summary, the best feedback is not necessarily informative, but encourages learners and students to construct more coherent meaning.

Individual versus whole-class

When he was in the Netherlands in 2018, Dylan Wiliam said that one of his biggest mistakes was that in the past he put too much emphasis on individual, personalized feedback. A good idea in theory, but obviously unworkable in practice, because what teacher has the time to give each student feedback individually?

Whole-class feedback offers interesting advantages. As a teacher, you can dwell on common mistakes, or on excellent or less excellent examples, giving students an idea of what is required of them. Students must relate your comments, or the conversation that ensues, to their own product or work, which can potentially lead to deeper processing.

For an example, take a look at this nice blog on whole-class feedback in practice.

Peer feedback versus teacher feedback

Students are generally not keen on peer feedback. They need to be able to trust the “source,” and they trust their peers less than they trust the teacher. But again, what feels familiar or trustworthy is not always necessarily helpful for better understanding.

“In the study by Yang, Badger, and Yu (2006) revision initiated by teacher feedback was less successful than revision initiated by peer feedback, probably because peer feedback induced uncertainty. Teacher feedback was accepted as such but proved to be associated with misinterpretation and miscommunication, whereas reservations regarding the accuracy of peer feedback induced discussion about the interpretation. Students’ reservations prompted them to search for confirmation by checking instruction manuals, asking the teacher, and/or performing more self-corrections. As a result, students acquired a deeper understanding of the subject. In contrast, teacher feedback lowered students’ self-corrections, perhaps students assumed that the teacher had addressed all errors and that no further corrections were required. (Yang et al., 2006)”

In conclusion

The connection between the concept of desirable difficulties and feedback has of course been made by Bjork before, but in this blog post I detail how desirable difficulties helps me better understand some of the findings surrounding feedback.

As with other desirable difficulties, some caution is necessary. Of course you don’t want to totally demotivate your students. And clearly, you want to support students appropriately enough. If you have to use through quick, immediate feedback, so be it (e.g., with novices or slow learners). But if see the opportunity, it doesn’t hurt to make feedback deliberately thought inducing.

The main premise of formative action is after all that it encourages learners to be active and thinking. Challenging learners to think for themselves about what that next step in the learning process should be, is another part of the strategy set.

In our book on formative action we have a full chapter on transformative feedback. You can download the chapter for free here:


  • Rene Kneyber

    René Kneyber is a former teacher of mathematics, and currently a trainer, advisor and board member of The Formative Action School He has written and translated more than fifteen books, including Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. From 2015 to 2022, he was a crown member of the Dutch Education Council.

    View all posts


  • Rene Kneyber

    René Kneyber is a former teacher of mathematics, and currently a trainer, advisor and board member of The Formative Action School He has written and translated more than fifteen books, including Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. From 2015 to 2022, he was a crown member of the Dutch Education Council.

    View all posts

Latest blogs