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Let’s Make Learning More Difficult: Desirable Difficulties

Let’s Make Learning More Difficult: Desirable Difficulties

It is well known that challenge can be a strong motivational force. Us humans tend to appreciate things more if they were achieved with some difficulty. In a research from 1994 Robert Bjork coined the term “desirable difficulties” suggesting that introducing certain difficulties into the learning process can greatly improve long-term retention. Corporate training professionals seem to always stand between a rock and a hard place – On the one hand, introducing too much difficulty might alienate learners and disengage them from the program. On the other hand, making things too easy means learners will not retain information and will not develop the desired levels of professionalism in their work. So how do we solve this?

Storage Vs. Retrieval

To understand the concept of desirable difficulties, we can think about learning as having two possible functions – Storage and Retrieval. Simply put, storage techniques are aimed at maximizing the amount of data we can submit to memory over a period. Think cramming for a history test the day before the exam. In this case we aim to memorize as much data as we can over a short period of time for use in the very near future.

Retrieval techniques on the other hand, are relevant when we are trying to get learners to really understand a concept and enable them to pull information out and use it intuitively over time. Adding some difficulties into training commits learners to deeper processing of information and through this delivers better retention, understanding and performance in activities requiring the knowledge.

There are several popular mechanisms for implementing desirable difficulties in training to maximize retrieval capabilities. These include:

  • Spacing and Interleaving Subjects – Delivering learning in spaced intervals and mixing different learning topics as part of the same thread, forces learners to catalogue and re-think learning topics when moving from one interval to the next. Click here to read about subscription learning as a way of delivering this. (link)
  • Retrieval vs. Repetition – Adding quizzes, questions and tests to training, during a mixed session for example, requires learners to actively engage with the information learned instead of passively re-reading or watching it.
  • Free form answers – Requiring learners to show understanding by formulating a response drives them to think about their training. This is preferable to just picking an answer from multiple choice options based on similarities to memorized data.
  • Delaying feedback – Giving feedback with some delay instead of immediately after a question was answered requires learners to re-think their answers and, potentially to re-engage with the training materials to try and fact check their answer.

Making Desirable Difficulties Desirable

Corporate training professionals are often measured on short-term course success instead of long term employee performance results. When introducing desirable difficulties managers might push back, translating initially high error rates as a sign that training was unsuccessful. This drives many training professionals to forego challenge for the sake of high course completion rates and stellar assessment scores. Many start with easy training interactions that escalate in difficulty as employees become more experienced in their work. While this approach might yield higher success rates early on, it can backfire by making employees over confident and lacking in knowledge in the short run while alienating veteran employees over time.

Making learning a little more challenging from the get go is imperative if we want to maximize results. To make the case for introducing unintuitive difficulties into learning we must make sure all stakeholders are aligned with regards to the goals of our training program. Are we just ticking the box as part of some imposed compliance requirement or are we trying to bring about actual mastery and professionalism, to fulfill our employees’ potential?

By challenging employees during training, we can supercharge their performance, make sure they retain information longer, retrieve it in their moment of need and are really in tune with their job essence. Think about your student years, when immediately after a hard test you huddled together with classmates in the hall, trying to rehash approaches to a difficult question. This is exactly the level of engagement we want to achieve when training employees. It’s this mechanism that makes sure they remember what they learned and feel committed to their training. Let’s make things a little more difficult.

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