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How do you help students integrate desirable difficulties into their learning?

Hilly Drok

In a previous blog, I talked about desirable difficulties: what they are, what they can look like, how to use them in formative action and how they can contribute to self-regulated learning. After all, desirable difficulties are what you want to use in your lessons to ensure that not only short-term performance takes place, but that long-term mastery develops in students.

Desirable difficulties thus create learning.  Despite the fact that not every student thinks learning takes place in school, it takes place in school. You might have students in class who ask if they can go home earlier “because they still have so much to learn for the test week”, or who say during class, “I’m not going to do this now, because I’m only going to learn at home (or at homework assistance)”. For these students, it is good to know that precisely those desirable difficulties used during lessons make for really deep learning!

 

Self-learning at home

But learning does not only take place at school. At home, too, it is important that students use effective strategies and do not just keep reading over the material in the book or make summaries where they overwrite half (or sometimes even the whole!) book.

In this blog, I want to take a closer look at how you can guide students in using desirable difficulties in their daily learning practices. After all, when learners start doing this themselves, it will contribute to long-term learning as well as give them knowledge on how to learn most effectively; and they will benefit from this for the rest of their lives.

 

But how do you help students with that?

Unfortunately, because desirable difficulties do not feel comfortable and are also ineffective in the short term, they are usually not preferred by learners. Therefore, it is extra important to impart knowledge of the strategy, confidence in the strategy and commitment to the strategy to learners.

How you can help your students learn to make better use of effective study strategies, I will outline below using the so-called KBCP framework[1] and the Study Smart Programme developed by the University of Maastricht[2] .

KBCP stands for Knowlegde, Believe, Commitment and Planning. According to this framework, it is important that learners have knowledge, belief and commitment to make the strategy their own. It then involves working with learners to plan when, why and how they will apply the strategy in their own learning.

The Study Smart programme adds to the KBCP framework how actual behaviour change can take place[3] , by looking at the obstacles students face and how they can be overcome.

The Study Smart programme relies more on the learner as an active participant in that process, and the experiences of those learners to understand how they can change in learning strategy use. The creators of this programme recognise that integrating desirable difficulties into one’s own learning is a long-term process that requires regular reflections and support for behaviour change.

Below, I list what is needed to support students in moving towards using desirable difficulties in their own learning. Here, I combine both approaches.

 

Knowledge

First of all, before a learner starts using a desirable difficulty, he or she should get sufficient knowledge from the teacher about how the strategy works. As a teacher, you subtitle what the learning strategy entails, how it can be used and why it is important to use it

Example of explicit instruction in retrieval practice

For example, in my Dutch subject I might want students to pick up what exactly arguing is at the beginning of a lesson series on an argument. I could also tell them, but I know that it is much more effective to have students actively retrieve the knowledge themselves. I also know that, in principle, students should have the required knowledge about discourses. But even if they didn’t know it, they would benefit from thinking about it themselves before I tell them about it, utilizing the pre-test-effect[4] .

So I might say to my students at the beginning of the lesson, “In a moment, I’m going to ask you to write down as much as you can of what you remember about arguments. With this, we are taking advantage of the test effect by doing a retrieval practice (what) through a so-called brain dump.

I deliberately do this at the beginning of the learning process (when) so that your prior knowledge is activated. It is important to activate your prior knowledge first before learning more about a topic, this makes it easier for the new information to hang on to existing information in your head. It doesn’t matter if you don’t come up with the right answer, even if you can’t remember anything, trying to recall it already makes for more learning gains (why).

I will give you a sheet of paper and you can write down everything you remember about speeches on it for two minutes. Trying to recall from your long-term memory already makes the knowledge stick better, so try to recall as much as you can (how).”

 

Metacognitive aspect

In this way, you have explained to students what the strategy gives them cognitively. In addition, it is good to mention the metacognitive aspect. This can be done, for example: “Moreover, retrieving knowledge makes you more aware of how much knowledge you actually have and how much you will have to learn about this subject later on. If it takes you a lot of effort and you can only pick up a little, you know you still have some work to do!”

 

Feedback on retrieval practice

Incidentally, formative action also has a role to play here. After all, ideally you want the retrieval of information to be insightful not only for the learners, but also for you as a teacher, as you do in formative acting. That way, you can make sure that students don’t build on the new knowledge based on misconceptions. Obviously, you want to get these out of the way as soon as possible.

Making the information insightful can be done, for example, by asking a targeted question and having it answered on a wipe-off pad or in a digital tool such as Padlet, Quizizz or Mentimeter. Once you have made students’ thinking insightful in this way, you can provide students with feedback the moment the prior knowledge contains misconceptions. Then you can give learners the right knowledge and have them practice it properly.


Example of explicit instruction in varied practice

“In a couple of minutes we are going to practise with different formulas for calculating a cone, a cylinder and a cube. Ideally, you might like to practise each formula so much that you have completely mastered it before moving on to the next one. Then it might seem like you have mastered it, but when you then get them mixed up on the test or in a practical situation have to decide for yourself which one to use, you still don’t really know it.

Therefore, after explaining what these different formulas mean, we are going to practise them right through each other. This will feel less pleasant, but by having to think harder about which formula to use when, you will eventually develop a better mastery! Unfortunately, it does take a little longer to master it properly, but once you understand it, you won’t forget it so quickly!”


 

But even if you have told all this and subtitled how to deploy and use desirable difficulties, you can’t assume that learners will actually start using these themselves during learning. Learners are often very persistent in their misconceptions about what constitutes effective learning.

Students make wrong assumptions because they overestimate long-term learning AND it feels more useful to use ineffective strategies. For example, a survey of 117 students found that 84% of those students use rereading as a learning strategy and only 11% test themselves[5] and that students preferred cramming to varied practice, despite the fact that they performed better when they had varied practice[6] .

It is therefore important to make the misconceptions very explicit. To do this, the Study Smart method suggests asking your students to collect evidence of their study methods, for example by having them take pictures of a study situation that is typical for them, writing a reflection of the internal and external factors that influenced their study situation.

You can use this information in a conversation with students, setting out very clearly the misconceptions of the ineffective learning strategy, as well as the research-based benefits of effective learning strategies.

 


“When you highlight important information from a text, it feels very meaningful. You feel that you are learning well. The paradox, however, is that you are not learning! Your brain thinks: “Good, that information is stored, I don’t need to do anything else with it and I certainly don’t need to actively remember it! (see also this Youtube-clip).

It therefore makes much more sense not only to mark, but also to make sure you actively recall the information from memory. To do this, after marking, you can ask a classmate or housemate to quiz you, or make your own flashcards, writing an important concept on the front and explaining it on the back.

Every card you get right, you put away, cards you don’t get right, you put at the bottom of your pile. Just until you have played all the cards away! Of course, don’t forget to repeat this process several times at increasingly long intervals between practice moments, otherwise you will forget the knowledge after all!”


 

To make tangible the extent to which a learning strategy has worked, you can ask the whole class to learn something on the same topic. You ask one half of the class to do this by using an ineffective strategy, such as rereading. The other half of the class should use an effective strategy, such as quizzing themselves using questions you have prepared. You then give students a diagnostic test in class two days later. You compare the results of both groups, with students being able to see the effect of the effective strategy through the group averages.

By having a conversation with learners about the difference between what these learning strategies did, you can help learners face the fact that desirable difficulties may have felt less effective and less comfortable in the short term, but will give them more learning gains in the longer term. Organising this feedback is essential for sufficient belief in the strategy.

 

Commitment

But even if students understand what the strategy means and believe it is effective, they are not going to use it automatically. They will still have to start committing to it. This is because knowledge and belief is not yet enough to give up old habits. This has to do with idiosyncratic beliefs that people generally have. They think: this does indeed sound very sensible, I also quite believe it works for many people. But not with me, because it works differently with me! (see also Anique de Bruin’s inaugural speech on this subject).

Your students will have to develop a positive attitude towards the strategy as well as towards the investment they have to make in it. After all, a new strategy like this takes quite a bit of investment: they have to master it well, it has to become their default, they have to get over the idea that it is ineffective (because it doesn’t yield as much in the short term and because they may have idiosyncratic experiences) and they have to overcome the pain it takes.

It can help to exchange experiences with classmates to find out whether it is really necessary to use all those difficult strategies to pass the test, whether it is normal to overtest yourself before a test and if their classmates do all that too, what strategy they think works best and what that looks like for them.

According to the developers of the Study Smart method, students’ motivation to use desirable difficulties will remain low the moment it does not get them higher grades and their classmates do not use these strategies. Reflecting on how the strategy helps the student towards their goals is therefore very important in this step.

And using classmates in that reflection, by letting students discuss their insecurities and resistance with their classmates, essential for real behaviour change.


“For today, you all had to learn words, using flashcards. Sit in a group of four and discuss with each other:

  • How you went about it. How many times did you repeat the cards? Did you repeat them until you knew them all? When did you stop? Why was that the moment for you to stop?
  • How you felt about using this technique. What did you feel when you used it? Frustration because it didn’t work well, for example, or enthusiasm because you knew it well?
  • What it delivered. Do you know the words better now than you knew them before? Can you remember them longer? Or perhaps you haven’t experienced any learning gains?
  • How you would approach learning next time? What of this technique would you use again? Would you rather use a different technique? Which one and why that one?”

Plans

If you want desirable difficulties to become standard techniques that students use themselves, you can help them plan these techniques when they are doing their homework at home. You can do the planning in class by thinking together about which task the pupil will use the strategy for, what exactly it looks like, why they are using it. The pupil then implements the technique himself at home and the next lesson you reflect together on how that went.

Keep in mind that pupils generally do not like using desirable difficulties and they are likely to fall back into their old behaviour quickly. Therefore, keep planning together and reflecting together on the techniques used until it is ingrained.

 


“At the end of this lesson series, you will have an oral in which you can talk about your future plans in Spanish. We obviously want you to have enough vocabulary by then to be able to do this, but also to still know it next year and when you leave school, because it’s going to take you too much time the rest of your life if you have to look up all the words every time! Therefore, we are now going to make sure that you really master this vocabulary list.

To ensure this, we need to start practising the material now in a staggered way, also allowing yourself time to functionally forget the material[7] . Choose three moments this week at intervals of at least a day and a half when you will rehearse yourself using the flashcards. Make sure you set aside half an hour in your diary for this each time.”


Replacing habits

It is very difficult to completely jettison or replace an old habit. How many people struggle with quitting smoking or snacking or adding the gym to their weekly repertoire. What can help in instilling good (learning) habits is not to completely replace the old habit, but to add something to it.

In learning behaviour, this could look like this: some students really enjoy summarising by transcribing half the book. It gives them grip and they believe in it, even if you have told them it does nothing for their long-term mastery.

Instead of discouraging students from this behaviour, challenge them to add desirable difficulty. After making the summary, get them to have a classmate go over some crucial concepts or explain to someone else how the different concepts in their summary relate to each other. That way, the student can keep the grip, but still teach themselves effective learning behaviour.

 

But where do I find the time!

Perhaps you as a teacher are now thinking, “Sounds all very sensible and effective, but in what time am I supposed to do all this! I’m already running out of time with my overcrowded curriculum!” A very logical thought and unfortunately, I cannot take away the enormous pressure on the curriculum.

However, it is good to remember that the more you and your pupils use desirable difficulties, the better the knowledge will stick in the long term and the less you will spend on endless repetition. And that ultimately saves you time in that overloaded curriculum!

I myself wish I had made more use of varied practice of verb spelling during my lessons, for instance. Because in my own lessons, I was explaining ‘t kofschip from bridge class to havo 5; year after year in the same way. And every time my students said they understood it and every time I had to explain it again the following year. Anyway, it could have saved me a lot of time by thinking better about where in my lesson design I would integrate which desirable difficulty.

 

Notes

  1. McDaniel, M. A. & Einstein, G. O. Training learning strategies to promote self-regulation and transfer: the knowledge, belief, commitment, and planning framework. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 15, 1363-1381 (2020).
  2. Biwer, F., de Bruin, A. B. H., Schreurs, S., & Egbrink, M. G. A. O. (2020). Future Steps in Teaching Desirably Difficult Learning Strategies: Reflections from the Study Smart Program. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(4), 439-446. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.07.006
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Logan-Fiorella/publication/369588588_Learning_by_Teaching/links/64234a8ca1b72772e431adec/Learning-by-Teaching.pdf#page=426
  4. Pan, S.C., Rivers, M.L. Metacognitive awareness of the pretesting effect improves with self-regulation support.Mem Cogn 51, 1461-1480 (2023). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-022-01392-1
  5. Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Butler, Andrew C. and Roediger III, Henry L.(2009)’Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?’,Memory,17:4,471 – 479. DOI: 10.1080/09658210802647009
  6. Birnbaum, M.S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E.L. et al. Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Mem Cogn 41, 392-402 (2013). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-012-0272-7
  7. Cottingham, S. (2023). Ausubel’s Meaningful Learning in Action. Edited by Tom Sherrington. London: John Catt.

 

Auteur

  • Hilly Drok

    Hilly Drok is a trainer, educational consultant and director at The Formative Action School. She also coordinates the Formative Action course for School Experts. She has been a Dutch teacher for 14 years and pioneered the implementation process of formative action at her high school. She is currently working on the topic of self-regulation.

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Auteur

  • Hilly Drok

    Hilly Drok is a trainer, educational consultant and director at The Formative Action School. She also coordinates the Formative Action course for School Experts. She has been a Dutch teacher for 14 years and pioneered the implementation process of formative action at her high school. She is currently working on the topic of self-regulation.

    View all posts

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