Lower Sixth Assembly Tackles Desirable Difficulties

Posted: 18/01/19

Following on from a talk delivered last term by Dr Michelle Ellefson, Reader in Cognitive Science at the University of Cambridge, last week’s Lower Sixth assembly focused on the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’.

The phrase ‘desirable difficulties’ was coined by Professor Robert Bjork from the marvellously named Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA in California to denote strategies that feel harder in the short-term but lead to better long term retention of material. These include strategies such as retrieval practice (where rather than just re-reading notes you actively test yourself on material), spacing (where you spread out your learning over time rather than cram for one long session), and dual coding (where you use a combination of words and diagrams to represent ideas). The idea that we need to make things more difficult for ourselves is a concept we are all probably familiar with in the context of sport or music - if you want to get better at playing netball you need to push yourself to try something more challenging - but we don’t often think about applying similar ideas to our academic studies. One thing that really struck us from Michelle’s talk was the idea that in today’s society where we have so much information available to us at the touch of a button, we have come to expect instant gratification and things to be easy; the concept that learning is, and should be, hard is therefore much more difficult for today’s young people to grasp.

Last week, Dr Claire Badger - our Senior Teacher responsible for Learning, Teaching and New Technologies - and members of the Student Learning Community, used the ideas they had learned from Michelle to run an assembly on desirable difficulties for all the Lower Sixth students. They discussed aspects that students have found difficult since starting the Sixth Form and the difference between things just being difficult, for example struggling to organise the sheer quantity of work that has built up, and desirable difficulties such as spreading out maths homework over several shorter sessions and using branched mind-maps to plan essays. They also talked about how the concept of desirable difficulties can be applied to note-taking; research has found that note-taking by typing on a laptop is often less effective than handwriting. The explanation is that most people can type much faster than they write so will attempt to type notes verbatim whereas if you take notes by hand you have to actively process the material to decide what to capture, a much harder process at the time but one that ultimately leads to better understanding.    

Thank you to Dr Badger and all the Sixth Form Student Learning Community for the work they did with Michelle last term and a particular thank you to those girls who presented to their peers last week. These are ideas we will keep coming back to over the course of the Sixth Form, and with younger year groups as well, so we do encourage parents to talk to their daughters about the difficulties they are facing in their studies and whether or not these can be categorised as ‘desirable’!


What to know more?

This YouTube video has a great summary from Professor Bjork himself on what constitutes a desirable difficulty.

The Six Strategies for Effective Learning from the Learning Scientists describes some specific learning strategies that stem from the concept of desirable difficulties.

This article discusses the research on note-taking by hand vs. typing

Some ideas from the Learning Scientists on note-taking:

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