The (Often Misconstrued) Relationship between Learning, Effort, and Difficulty

03.20_the-relationship-between-learning-effort-and-difficulty

Learning requires effort and is often difficult, but the exact relationship between learning, effort, and difficulty is complex and often misunderstood by both teachers and students. The misunderstanding can lead both groups to behave in ineffective and even counterproductive ways. In this essay, I will discuss common misconceptions students and teachers hold about learning, effort, and difficulty and how these misconceptions can lead both groups astray. By effort, I mean that mental concentration and attentional focus a task requires. Cognitive research shows that mental effort is a limited resource in the human cognitive system. Effortful tasks take a substantial amount of concentration to perform (Chew & Cerbin, 2021). Difficult tasks not only require effort but also pose some level of challenge to overcome. Performing difficult tasks typically requires sustained, mindful concentration. When students struggle with learning a concept, it is a combination of effort and difficulty.

Learning novel, complex information is effortful, but is the opposite also true? Does effortful processing lead to learning? The evidence is mixed, with some research showing that effort can enhance learning (Tyler et al., 1979) and other research showing that it does not (Zacks et al., 1983). I believe that Hyde (1973) resolved this issue by showing that while difficulty per se did not enhance learning, difficulty that led to elaborative and meaningful processing did. To take a teaching example, writing a 10-page paper takes more effort than writing five-page paper, but the additional effort may not translate to more learning. It depends on the processing that the student went through in creating the longer paper.


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Learning requires effort and is often difficult, but the exact relationship between learning, effort, and difficulty is complex and often misunderstood by both teachers and students. The misunderstanding can lead both groups to behave in ineffective and even counterproductive ways. In this essay, I will discuss common misconceptions students and teachers hold about learning, effort, and difficulty and how these misconceptions can lead both groups astray. By effort, I mean that mental concentration and attentional focus a task requires. Cognitive research shows that mental effort is a limited resource in the human cognitive system. Effortful tasks take a substantial amount of concentration to perform (Chew & Cerbin, 2021). Difficult tasks not only require effort but also pose some level of challenge to overcome. Performing difficult tasks typically requires sustained, mindful concentration. When students struggle with learning a concept, it is a combination of effort and difficulty.

Learning novel, complex information is effortful, but is the opposite also true? Does effortful processing lead to learning? The evidence is mixed, with some research showing that effort can enhance learning (Tyler et al., 1979) and other research showing that it does not (Zacks et al., 1983). I believe that Hyde (1973) resolved this issue by showing that while difficulty per se did not enhance learning, difficulty that led to elaborative and meaningful processing did. To take a teaching example, writing a 10-page paper takes more effort than writing five-page paper, but the additional effort may not translate to more learning. It depends on the processing that the student went through in creating the longer paper.

Difficulty can also support learning under the right circumstances. Bjork and Bjork (2020) use the term desirable difficulty to refer to processes that make learning more difficult initially but lead to better long-term recall. (You can read about desirable difficulty here.) For example, recalling information under test conditions and relearning forgotten information are both forms of desirable difficulty. The Bjorks are quick to point out, though, that not all difficulty is desirable. Undesirable difficulty, required effort that does not lead to meaningful processing, consumes limited attention and memory space, impeding learning and memory. Desirable difficulty increases the storage and retrieval strength of memories and depends a great deal on the learner’s prior knowledge. What is desirable difficulty for one learner may be undesirable for another. To summarize, learning is typically effortful and difficult, but effort and difficulty per se do not lead to learning. To aid learning, effort and difficulty have to occur as a product of meaningful processing.

Student misconceptions about effort and difficulty

Let me start with an excerpt from an email I received from a student in my statistics class many years ago:

I realize it is the night before our second test. Statistics is an ocean in which I am drowning. I have tried studying with friends and it has not been any help, first of all they are way ahead of me and when I say I don’t understand they don’t really get that I truly have no idea what is happening. I understand that I am not going to pass the test tomorrow. I need help from someone who actually has the time, and energy to help me from the ground up. I would love to stop by your office and ask a question, but I do not know the question to ask. Do you know of somehow I can get tutoring starting from the bottom and working my way up.[1]

This student sat in the front and center of the class and never took any notes. They were waiting for me to say something that would instantly “click” with them and make sense, and they sought the same from classmates. In this student’s mind, learning and understanding should be instant and effortless. As a result, they wouldn’t make even an initial effort to engage the material. For this and similar students I’ve worked with, it is perfectly consistent to avoid working on learning the concepts and still complain about how difficult it is.

Students often see struggle and effort as signs that they are naturally bad at a subject or lack aptitude for it. They avoid subjects at which they perceive they will struggle, even if they might find those subjects interesting, and they try to avoid expending effort in classes because they believe doing so reflects negatively on their ability. This phenomenon is a consequence of a fixed mindset (Yeager & Dweck, 2012), in which person believes their abilities are inborn and unchangeable through their efforts. Failure reveals a lack of aptitude, not of effort, so any possibility of failure should be avoided. These students go from major to major looking for the one that they will instantly be good at rather than investing the effort to make sense of the topic and begin building understanding.

It’s part of today’s culture to look for hacks and shortcuts to avoid doing the work. Instead of reading a text, just google the answers for the reading quiz. Instead of engaging in study strategies that involve desirable difficulty, use easy, mindless ones. Effort is for chumps. The problem, of course, is that little learning occurs, and exam performance suffers. Teachers need to promote a growth mindset among students (Yeager & Dweck)—the belief that one’s ability grows with one’s efforts. With a growth mindset, effort is the key to mastery. (Read more about growth and fixed mindsets here.)

Teacher misconceptions about effort and difficulty

I once attended a faculty workshop whose topic was creating and sustaining academic rigor. It was a surreal experience. Every faculty member talked about how hard they made it on their students. When one faculty member said they required students to read five textbooks, another chimed in with a requirement for 10. An assigned 10-page research paper was countered with a required 15-page paper. I would not have been surprised to hear someone required students to write papers with their own blood. The problem was that none of this had to do with actual learning. The faculty were equating difficulty and struggle with learning, assuming (incorrectly) that struggle automatically led to learning. What the student has to think about while writing a paper is more important than the length of the paper. Bjork and Bjork point out that the concept of “desirable difficulty” is often misconstrued as “any difficulty is desirable,” which is clearly mistaken.

Faculty need to abandon the misconception that student struggle leads to learning. They should pay more attention to what assignments cause students to think about than the form of the final product.

[1] I did not keep the identity of the student, just the message. I’ve long since forgotten their name. They eventually dropped the course and changed majors not long after this semester.

References

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(4), 475–479. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.09.003

Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W.J. (2020). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40. https://www.doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266

Hyde, T. S. (1973). Differential effects of effort and type of orienting task on recall and organization of highly associated words. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 97(1), 111–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033780

Tyler, S. W., Hertel, P. T., McCallum, M. C., & Ellis, H. C. (1979). Cognitive effort and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5(6), 607–617. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.5.6.607

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2012.722805

Zacks, R. T., Hasher, L., Sanft, H., & Rose, K. C. (1983). Encoding effort and recall: A cautionary note. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 9(4), 747–756. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.9.4.747


Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: slchew@samford.edu.