Desirable Difficulty: Making It Hard on Purpose (Sometimes)

This academic year, I’ve been taking courses at Landmark College (VT), a four-year institution that admits only students who are neuro-diverse or students who, at my institution, would have accommodations. The current two-month course on student engagement, self-regulation, and motivation has just begun. The instructors are on staff at the college through its Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT). First, my concern is that my understanding of students with a learning disability is quite thin. Beyond recommended accommodations, there has to be something more to working with these students, right?

But my interest is not necessarily solely on wanting to improve my understanding and practice for differently-abled students but to improve as a teacher for all students and share some of what I’m learning with my SCC colleagues. All students deserve special accommodations similar in the sense of principles of Universal Design that strive to accommodate learning differences. In other words, much of what I’m studying is just good teaching and also not just for developmental teachers.

These classes are online and I’m beginning my third course, but at the same time I’m also circling back to previous course’s content to discuss with fellow teachers here at SCC. This is putting a crimp on my brain. So I asked one of the two current instructors, Dr. Rick Bryck, about my challenge handling the flow of information online and my desire to learn as much as possible. This reflection was actually an assignment that asked students (us teachers, advisors, success coaches) to examine a recent experience where our Executive Function was challenged and narrow the reflection to one of the six aspects of EF. Mine was organizing, prioritizing, and activating to work or simply Activation. EF is a cornerstone of every course, by the way.

Recently, a fellow teacher made a comment that when one reads online the material is more difficult to learn. In the past, I’ve read research related to this, but at this moment I was really feeling this: Online material was literally streaming across my eyesight. What and how much was actually sticking?

A couple of our online developmental English teachers have also referenced the challenge of teaching online and student learning. As a current online student myself, I shared with Rick my challenging situation with EF activation. He introduced me to what is said to be “one of the greatest insights in the last 20 years” in terms of potential to improve classroom teaching by Robert Bjork (1994): desirable difficulty.

Desirable difficulties, discussed in Jeff Bye’s Psychology Today article (2011), is when certain difficulties are introduced into the learning process to improve long-term retention of learned material. This sounds especially counterintuitive for developmental instructors who are working to make the often rocky road of college reading and writing less bumpy. But note the desirable part. Not all difficulties are good ones. We are talking about intentional difficulties.

Some ideas Bye identifies of desirable difficulties include:

  • Spacing learning sessions apart rather than massing them together
  • Testing learners
  • Varying settings in which learning takes place
  • Making learning material less clearly organized
  • Having learners generate target material through another active process

A deeper processing of material can occur when these kinds of difficulties occur. Cramming and reviewing information can influence performance speed and accuracy. The ability to retrieve information over time is more important, isn’t it? “Making learning too easy and straightforward can cause a misleading boost in the retrieval strength without causing the deeper processing that encourages the long-term retention afforded by higher storage strength,” Bye explains.

By challenging his readers with the accepted idea that education is supposed to be about learning knowledge that one can use throughout life, it is clear that teaching should use methods that facilitate that longer retention of knowledge and skills. In my case, Rick is suggesting, for one, I shouldn’t be studying material the way I eat a hamburger: slow down, return to information, take smaller bites. Get my face out of my food and look around—take a breather!

The idea of desirable difficulty leads me to wonder about when I have students work in a different platform, such as Prezi or Voicethread, to share their ideas they’re engaged with in their reading and writing, their processes, or learning. Does using new tools fit under the desirable difficulty of “generating material through another active process” or even of varying settings where learning takes place?

I also wonder about having students write author’s note about what they need help with on a piece of writing, something that proves quite challenging; can’t I just tell them where the writing needs work?

I wonder about other “spaces” that I may allow to exist or steer away from in my class when student conversation moves into conflicted, class, race, and politically-charged areas. Perhaps this is part of my class plan and I’ve prepared students with a framework for working with one another’s views, but what about the many unplanned turns? Perhaps these are also potential moments of desirable difficulty when students are generating material through an active process and some deep engagement can potentially take place.

I’ve long believed that the best teachers of writing are those who are writing. It makes sense that the best teachers, then, are those who are engaged in learning themselves. They are engaged in the challenge with their students. It will likely even be uncomfortable and counterintuitive.

I’ve got work to do.

~ Phip Ross


An English teacher at Southeast Community College, Phip Ross earned his doctorate in education in 2013. A video piece of his dissertation can be viewed here. A Fulbright Scholar (2007), his collaboration at SCC on Transitions was recognized by NCIA as an Outstanding Initiative for Student Perseverance and Retention (2014). You may contact him at