Teaching & learning: Desirable difficulties

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When planning lessons, we should not worry about students getting stuck, we should worry about them not getting stuck. Caroline Sherwood explains

Learning is hard. It is understandable that teachers should strive to make learning easier for their students.

During feedback from an observation early in my career, my observer questioned that once I had set a learning task up, lots of hands went up and students seemed to struggle. My discussion with my observer went something like this:

“That’s because I’d planned something challenging for them to learn.”

“Perhaps you could think about planning a settler task, something they can just get on with.”

“But a task that requires no struggle suggests they wouldn’t be learning.”

“But it would settle them at the start.”

“I don’t want them settled. I want them active. I want them learning something.”

I questioned the worth of planning a task which didn’t seem to promote any struggle. I’ve always taught key stage 3 with a sense of urgency and with a focus on challenge to avoid deficiencies and interventions at key stage 4. I worry about key stage 3: are they making enough progress? Is the curriculum right for them? Have we got it right yet? We can’t be complacent with key stage 3 – their learning needs to be robust. Learning is hard, particularly if you’re doing it right!

Learning is hard

Brown, Roediger and McDaniel define learning as “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (2014).

Learning could perhaps be divided into three areas: the actual learning (the hard bit), memory, and retention/performance.
Every time we learn something new our brains form new connections – new neural pathways are carved out and often existing pathways are strengthened. And all this is invisible. You can’t observe learning. You can observe recall linked to retention and you can observe performance. But the actual learning is imperceptible.

Robert Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulties (Bjork, 1994) suggests that introducing certain difficulties into the learning process can greatly improve long-term retention of the learned material. So, if we get the learning right, both memory, retention, and performance is heightened. But learning is not easy, and both students and their teachers might resist – wishing for that settler task, which requires minimal effort or brain power.

Jeffrey Bye (2011) draws on multiple research, suggesting the following methods for introducing desirable difficulties:

  • Spacing learning sessions apart rather than massing them together.
  • Testing learners on material rather than having them simply restudy it.
  • Having learners generate target material through a puzzle or other kind of active process, rather than simply reading it passively.
  • Varying the settings in which learning takes place.
  • Making material less clearly organised for learners with some background knowledge.
  • Using fonts that are slightly harder to read.

Bye recognises that “these difficulties have generally been modifications to commonly used methods that add some sort of additional hurdle during the learning or studying process”.

We need to avoid looking to eliminate learner difficulties – wanting to make the learning easy and hurdle-free means learning is superficial and will not last: “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, 2011).

Imagine the process of carving new neural pathways as branding or burning. It would feel uncomfortable. This is what we should want for our students. They need to be told to expect challenge and taught how to deal with it. With the world at their fingertips, they might not like not knowing the answer, they might not like having to do it the hard way. But this is what we must promote: starting with key stage 3.

I never make it ‘fun’

When planning my lessons, fun is the very last thing I consider – in fact, the majority of the time it is not even on my radar.
However, in Humour in Pedagogy (2006), RL Garner explores the positive physiological and psychological effects of humour.

Garner highlights that retention and recall are improved when teachers use humour. Neurologist, Judy Willis also reveals how fun experiences increase levels of dopamine, endorphins, and oxygen – all things that promote meaningful learning (2006). Willis states: “The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery’, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

So why isn’t fun at the top of my to-do list? Well, in Motivation to Learn (Giani & O’Guinn, 2010), the authors state: “Working on a task for intrinsic reasons rather than extrinsic influences are not only more enjoyable for the participant, but it also facilitates learning and achievement.”

So fun isn’t on my lesson plan – but stretch and challenge and authentic opportunities to make progress are. And this is where the fun is found. Giani & O’Guinn go on to say: “When students acquire new skills and observe their own growth, they feel more successful and their intrinsic desire to learn increases.”

In a classroom where learning is the most important thing that happens day-in, day-out, fun is perhaps a little too temporary, too flimsy and transient for me – an enduring, more ingrained love of learning driven by intrinsic motivation fuels my lesson planning. Learning itself is fun. The fun is in the learning. It is not a bolt-on and they are not mutually exclusive, but for me – the learning must come first.

Aim for stuck

Graham Nuthall (2007) explores the unsurprising concept that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks that are within their comfort zone as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. It is worth considering: what are the students’ barriers when facing and embracing challenges and difficulties in your classroom? If necessary, embrace the challenges for them:

  • “I’m glad you’re stuck, it means your learning something new.”
  • “I know you’re finding this difficult, and I’m really glad.”
  • “Learning isn’t easy – if you’re finding this difficult you’re doing it right.”
  • “I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if you never got stuck.”

Look to plan learning and thinking which will improve everyone: everyone getting better every lesson. Make every lesson count. It might be that they improve by 0.1 per cent each lesson, but if you put the collective improvements together you’ll get something special.

W Clement Stone said in Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude (1960): “You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective.”

Our students can’t choose their environment, so we must make sure we make the right decisions for them. Shallow approaches to shallow learning are less difficult to design, easier to deliver and students will be able to complete them with little effort or challenge, not dissimilar to a settler task I was advised to use.

You can cover more content. More shallow content, but more content nonetheless. But there is a price to pay: long-term retention, performance, and application suffers greatly.

Patti Shank (2017) explains that “making learning too easy leads to thinking that learning has occurred when participants quickly forget and cannot actually apply. Deeper processing is critical”. So, when planning the students’ learning this week, don’t ask yourself what if they get stuck? Ask, what if they don’t?

  • Caroline Sherwood is director of teaching and Learning at South Molton Community College in Devon and project director for Women Leading in Education in the South West with Dartmoor Teaching School Alliance.


  • Make it Stick: The science of successful learning, Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, Harvard, 2014.
  • Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings, Bjork, 1994 (In Metacognition: Knowing about knowing, Metcalfe & Shimamura, MIT Press).
  • Desirable Difficulties in the Classroom: When learning, how matters as much as what, Jeffrey Bye, Psychology Today, 2011: http://bit.ly/2JMESbF
  • However, in Humour in Pedagogy: How ha-ha can lead to aha! RL Garner, College Teaching, 2006: http://bit.ly/2KpCxVv
  • Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher, Judy Willis, 2006: http://bit.ly/2reSAgJ
  • Motivation to Learn: Igniting a love of learning in all students, Giani & O’Guinn, 2010: http://bit.ly/2HMv5lu
  • The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall, NZCER Press, 2007.
  • Science of Learning 101: Why learning should be hard, Patti Shank, 2017: http://bit.ly/2Kt6Fzi


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