Desirable Difficulty — Why Making Learning More Difficult Improves Your Skill Development

The struggle when learning a skill is one of the most effective ways to learn.

Erik Hamre


Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

We often think that we are learning best when what we are doing is easy. This is not necessarily the case. Instead, it may indicate that you are doing something that you already know and that you’re not pushing to improve your abilities.

By making learning more difficult (but not too difficult), you will improve your skills faster. Such short-term obstacles that improve learning are called ‘desirable difficulties’.

It was a term coined by Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, who in their research found that conditions that make performance improve rapidly often fail to support long-term retention and transfer. Whereas conditions that create challenges and slow the rate of apparent learning often optimise long-term retention and transfer.

In other words, you remember things for longer and can apply what you learn more easily to new situations when you create more challenging learning conditions.

Why is it so?

Difficulties are desirable because they strengthen encoding and retrieval processes that improve learning, comprehension, and remembering.

When you are learning a new skill, you are trying to rewire a specific part of your brain; changing and making new connections between neurons. This change can only happen when you challenge yourself and make things more difficult. If things are easy, you are probably using the circuits that already exists.

Connections between neurones in the brain are plastic, and making the brain work is what seems to make a difference. By challenging yourself, you start to use slightly more complex networks, and then you make these circuits more robust by using them repeatedly.

Illusions of Mastery

You have just learned a new dance move in your salsa class. You do it over and over again, and you get it right every time. Surely you must have mastered it. Then you show up in the next class, and you’re completely blank. You have no idea how it even starts, and what follows is also a…