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Learning: No Pain, No Gain

Good teachers are not the ones who make learning easy.

The "best" teachers are the one's who make learning easy. At least that is what the poorer students say. They may be wrong. The popular belief that it is easier to learn things that are easy rather than harder is also probably wrong. Easy material may not elicit enough attention and engagement to produce lasting learning. So, educators may need to re-think the whole notion of what makes a teacher effective. Making learning easier makes the teacher more popular, but that does not necessarily translate to real student achievement.

Kent State psychology professors have just reported a study of this matter with college students. They find that when students think something is easy to learn they may have only a superficial level of learning that does not last much beyond the next test. Just staring repeatedly at learning material is not nearly as effective as forcing retrieval of the information. Moreover, students can develop an easy-learning attitude that leads to bad study habits and an ineffective learning style.

Other research that I have summarized elsewhere shows that students likely do not know material as well as they think they do. That is, if they perceive they have "got it in the bag," they may find out they are sadly mistaken at test time. Likewise, students tend to quit study too soon, thinking the material was easy and they have learned it. In fact, repeatedly studying material you assume you know makes it more likely that you really do know it.

Easy learning, as in a single cramming session, is deceptive. It is not nearly as effective as the harder learning of spreading out the study over many days and weeks. The self-testing under the delayed conditions is much more effective precisely because it is harder to recall material learned days ago.

In the Kent State studies, college-aged students were asked to study for a week a pack of 48 flashcards that paired Swahili vocabulary words with their English translations. The students were divided into two groups and in both groups, students asked to use a mediator - word, phrase or concept - link both words of a pair. Students in one group were given practice quizzes where they were shown a word and asked to name the other member of the pair. An examination at the end of the week revealed that the practice-quiz group performed much better on the final exam, especially if they were asked to recall the mediator.

In a study recently reported at an American Educational Research Association meeting in by Katherine Rawsom at Williams College, students studied 35 Swahili-English word pairs on flash cards. The students were asked to practice until they got the vocabulary correct using either the entire stack or five stacks of seven cards each. Researchers instructed students to study the flashcards until they had gotten each translation correct either once, five, or 10 times, before taking a final quiz a week later. Getting the stack correct five times was three times more effective for the final quiz than the stack was correct only once. Also, study of one big stack was better than five little ones.

Students had predicted just the opposite. They expected studying smaller groups of flashcards would be more helpful than studying the big stack, and they expected no real benefit from studying cards more than once. They remembered about as many words as they expected to recall when studying the entire pack, 43 percent to 46 percent. Yet those who had studied the small stacks expected to remember nearly 60 percent of words yet recalled only 17 percent. In general, students were incorrect in two ways: 1) they give too little value to learning strategies that are difficult (using multiple sessions on the big stack), and 2) they give too much credence to strategies that were later documented to be less effective.

The deceptiveness of ease of learning was reinforced in a study reported in Psychological Science by Nate Kornell and collaborators at three other universities. Participants were asked to predict how easily they would remember vocabulary words after studying them once or multiple times. Some of the words were presented in the standard font size on the person's computer screen, while others were presented four times larger -something that makes the text feel easier to process but prior research shows does not improve memory. In addition, for some words, participants were told they would be allowed to study more than once.

The participants uniformly predicted that studying the words in larger font would help them remember more than studying the words multiple times. In fact, increased font size did nothing to help them, but studying even once more improved their recall of the new words.

Some school authorities have it all backwards. They want teachers to make the material as easy to learn as possible. I don't mean to excuse teachers whose instruction is disorganized and confusing. But teachers who challenge students with difficult material and assignments, as well as frequent testing, are actually doing their students a favor. They are just the opposite of the accusation of being "bad" teachers.

This also relates to "dumbing down" the curriculum, which may actually interfere with learning. If we raised standards, we would find that students have to get more engaged. Better learning is predictable. I think that when learning is difficult, learners are obliged to be more engaged. And it is the engagement that achieves lasting learning. Of course this only works for students who are motivated to learn.


Cavallos, M. (2011) How testing improves memory. Science News. November 6th, 2010; Vol.178 #10

Kornell, N., Rhodes, M. G., Castel, A. D., & Tauber, S. K. (2011). The ease of processing heuristic and the stability bias: Dissociating memory, memory beliefs, and memory judgments. Psychological Science. 22(6) 787 -794

Sparks, Sarah D. (2011). Studies find "desirable difficulties" help students learn. Education Week, April 26.

More from William R. Klemm Ph.D.
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