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Desirable difficulties during the learning process

Each year when summertime is right around the corner, the need for that well-toned beach body becomes painfully apparent. There is a multitude of supplements and potions that promise to melt away the fat and provide the Photoshop figure that’s on every commercial-filled page of glossy magazines.

Most of these miracle solutions are pure fraud, while some may show minor results on short term. The truth we all know is that good physical condition comes with a healthy diet and serious workouts. It takes a lot of effort and some pain to get to look even remotely as good as we’d like.

Instructors try to make it fun with upbeat music and sometimes even dance moves but ultimately, if it doesn’t burn, it’s not efficient. Recent studies show that this is also true for our smartest muscle – the brain. True learning requires some discomfort.

Fun is good, easy may be inefficient

Learning professionals have for some time looking for ways to make corporate training easier and more fun. While it is important for it to be both engaging and entertaining, real development requires a lot more than fun and games.

It’s good to enjoy the experience but it’s also very important to remember and be able to use what was learned. If most of the information is wiped out of memory immediately or soon after the test was taken, it’s not a case of effective learning just a way of getting results on paper (or in an excel spreadsheet or pie chart – it may look good but has no substance).

There are actually a lot of learning practices that we have probably all used at some point that have been proven to be completely counterproductive – some examples would be cramming information the night before an exam or using colored markers to highlight ‘important’ information.

Some difficulties are desirable

At the 2016 APS Annual Convention in Chicago, APS James McKeen Cattell Fellows Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert A. Bjork, an APS Past President, discussed these and other “desirable difficulties” that learners can introduce to make their studying more productive.

Their findings show that people can be sometimes misled by their performance while learning, which can be brought about by conditions that are present in the environment when the instruction process takes place but are unlikely to also be there at a different place and time when the information is necessary. This is why, performance during a learning process is often an unreliable — and sometimes downright misleading — indication of whether learning, as measured by long-term retention and transfer, has happened.

In order to be efficient, the learning process needs to be an active one, to take a toll and not feel exactly great. Tests are great for the recalling work-out of the brain but as we know, not really a crowd pleaser.

Taking time helps

Another good but not so popular learning technique is spacing out the sessions. While in school, most students study right before exams. With old-school corporate training, classroom sessions also tried to give as much information as possible in order to make the most of the little time participants had for this.

Modern technology however proves to be of great aid in leaving enough time to pass between instruction episodes. Without the time and space confinement, learners can choose at what intervals they feel it’s best to enroll in various modules.

Companies should concentrate less on rapid completion rates as they are not an indicator of effective learning but rather of wasted time both for those who worked on designing the modules and for those who clicked through them only to the “thank you” screen quicker. Learners who take their time are not procrastinators, rather they give themselves a better chance at information retention.

Experience before theory

Exploratory learning is not a new technique. Its aim is to deepen conceptual understanding by giving learners the opportunity to explore the various aspects of new topics on their own prior to receiving theoretical information.

In this study published earlier this year in Contemporary Educational Psychology, researchers looked at two undergraduate physics courses that asked students to solve various problems or complete different tasks either before or after being given an academic lecture. Students who had a go at them before the courses proved to have a much better conceptual understanding of the matters than whose who heard the lecture first.

Working on these assignments first, helped the students discover and infer important concepts, principles, and procedures on their own prior to having them presented by a professor –a process that was obviously more difficult, but resulted in superior understanding.

All in all

The reality is that to be effective, learning needs to be done with some effort. That doesn’t mean that all the gimmicks learning professionals come up with to make it easier and more fun are counterproductive. Nor does learning have to be torture.

The key are those desirable difficulties that make the brain work out. There may be some discomfort but the results are worth it – just like in the case of regular gym sessions for the body.

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