Learning Should Be Hard, But Where And How?

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Learning Should Be Hard


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Should learning be hard, and if so, how do teachers plan for this?

I have returned to a paper published by Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, 2011, Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning.

In my navigation of memory and our understanding of the brain, I am keen to know what teachers can do with all this information. Published in 2011, Bjork and Bjork take their research on the relationship of forgetting and learning and how hard students study, only then to perform poorly on a just-given exam, one step further.

Notably, “optimizing instruction will require unintuitive innovations.”

Should teachers teach slowly?

Optimising learning and instruction require going against one’s intuitions, “deviating from standard instructional practices and managing one’s own learning activities new ways.”

How true can this be said ourselves as teachers? For example, taking on new initiatives, new ways of working, new theories or new leadership. Bjork and Bjork explain “the basic problem learners confront is that we can easily be misled as to whether we are learning effectively.” We fall to easy for our subjective impressions. For example,

You may be reading this blog thinking that you’re learning something. you may bookmark it and read it again later, thinking this time (to provide a sense of familiarity) that it will make a change in your practice.

Of great importance are the conditions of learning that make performance improve, fail to support long-term retention and knowledge transfer.  the researchers suggest that when we create challenges and slow the rate of apparent learning, this can optimise long-term retention.

Perhaps it is time for teachers to end their lessons slowly.

Is it learning or performance?

Performance is what we can see in lesson observation, however learning is much more complicated.

Let’s start with that question on every school’s learning walk template across the country. “Is learning taking place?”

Learning what? Which of the students was/wasn’t learning X? How was X evaluated before, during and after?

Just two or three simple questions that would take researchers a lifetime to complete. If we want to ask such questions in our lesson observations, we must be incredibly specific and meticulous.

Where should learning be hard?

I’m reminded of the excellent paper published. by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University, Improving Education (Robert Coe et al, 2011). If you have not read this paper, it is a must-read.

We now know that learning is a permanent change in knowledge or understanding, and evaluating performance as an unreliable proxy for learning.

Learning happens when students have to think hard, but what teachers should ask, is ‘Where in the lesson will students be required to think hard?’ The next challenge is how can school leaders invest in effective professional development.

Desirable difficulties

Bjork and Bjork (1994) recommend [teachers] “vary the conditions of learning, rather than keeping [lessons] constant and predictable, interleaving instruction on separate topics.”

Spacing practice is also recommended, which is restudy rather than reteaching, and over a spaced period of time. Both researchers recommend “we simply stress the importance of incorporating spacing and avoiding massing in managing learning.”

Desirable is defined as using encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension and remembering. importantly, “if students do not have background knowledge (schema) to respond to them successfully, they become undesirable difficulties.”

Finally, on the topic of interleaving practice (which I like to explain in teaching terms as ‘fruit salad’ topics, without mixing in ‘peas’ or ‘Baked beans’ which are disconnected topics), Bjork and Bjork conclude, “try to spend less time on the input side and more time on the output side.”

Teachers should always revisit past content, even if it is just for 30 seconds on curriculum matter from last term.

What can you do?

This paper recommends that teachers, and students when revising, take a “more active role in learning by introducing desirable difficulties into study activities.” They also provide an excellent analogy which recommends that we avoid thinking of our memory as something that improves by replaying material as a tape recorder.

Resources to try

Below I’ve listed a number of resources you can try to help you make students think hard. Note, these are resources for you to design for your students and not the resources for students themselves.

  1. Retrieval practice tickets
  2. Retrieval practice clock
  3. Encode, store, retrieve as a curriculum and lesson planning approach
  4. Creating an effective feedback loop
  5. Increasing knowledge transfer to memory
  6. 10 scaffolding learning techniques
  7. Learn more about memory webinars

We do not learn it simply because we repeat it. Learning requires an active process of interpretation, developing new schema onto what we already know.


  1. Desirable Difficulties, Bjork and Bjork, 1994
  2. Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way, Bjork and Bjork, 2011
  3. Improving Education, Durham University, 2011

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