The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn

I certainly tell my literature and video game students that they’ll have to study texts that they might not choose to pick up on their own, and I remind my journalism students that part of their job is to find what is important and make it interesting to the reader. I deliberately teach my “new media projects” students obscure tools that they probably will never use on the job, because I am more interested in teaching them how to learn any new tool, than I am in teaching students how to do what employers say they want people to accomplish with whatever (expensive) tool is currently the industry standard. I admire the “difficulty paper” concept that my college Mike Arnzen has developed, but I doubt anyone would complain my courses don’t require a lot of head-scratching.

One of the most popular pages on my website is a set of instructions for how to format an MLA style paper. Every so often, I get a comment like this: “i just need to understand the mla formatting for writing papers and i couldn’t understand your given description about it so, please can teach me about mla formatting in simple or easy way.” I try to be understanding, but the web page is already as “simple or easy” as I know how to make it. In some cases, the reader has no idea what an MLA style paper is, and really needs an introduction to thesis statements, or argumentation. And it’s also true that MLA style is neither simple nor easy. Certainly if a reader tells me what part of the document is confusing, I can try to clarify that document.

A few months ago, when I got a similar complaint from a reader, my response rubbed someone the wrong way. See for yourself what happened. Do we see some classic trolling? Or a student’s carefully conditioned expectation that, if you only ask the right authority the right question, you’ll be shown the answer key that clearly specifies the “correct” answer.


Is it reasonable to contact someone who volunteered to post a free handout, and — without giving any specific criticism, or asking any specific questions, ask that the author make the handout easier to understand? That’s like a doctor telling a patient, “stop getting sick,” or a coach telling a team, “win more.”

If the comment was “In section 1.1, you say ‘blah blah,’ but that seems to contract what it says in section 2.3 about ‘yada yada,'” then I’d have thanked the commenter and either addressed the misreading or improved the miswriting (or both).

As a writer, of course I want to improve my writing; I work hard to reduce the potential for misunderstandings, since I understand my obligation as communicator is to ensure my audience understands my message. Those who have difficulty receiving messages often blame the sender, when in truth the problem may be the recipient is not paying attention, has not been prepared with the necessary raw materials (prior knowledge, cultural context, motivation) to perform the difficult cognitive work involved in receiving and understanding a complicated message.

We want the messages we receive to be crystal clear, and we get frustrated when people mishear or misunderstand  (or ignore) what we feel is important. According to Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos — students reported that videos were “confusing” when they challenged and corrected their misconceptions, but praised videos as “clear” even when those videos did not successfully manage to alter their misunderstanding of science concepts. Even when the videos correctly demonstrated a scientific principle, immediately after watching the video, students frequently mis-remembered he video as affirming the student’s inaccurate belief. A post-test showed that students rated non-challenging videos as “clear,” even when an objective post-test showed students had learned little to nothing from it; and students rated a challenging video as “confusing,” even though a post-test showed students managed to un-learn some important misconceptions.

So it seems it’s necessary to shake up students who come to a subject with misconceptions that have to be corrected..

The subjects had 90 minutes to memorize as much of the material as they could. Following a 15-minute delay, they were tested on their recall. The group that had read the alien taxonomies in unusual fonts scored, on average, 14 percentage points higher than the group that had processed the material in the more familiar font.

I decided to pose this challenging puzzle to the participants in a workshop I was leading last month at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts, a gem of a teaching conference held each May on the campus of Oxford College of Emory UniversitI asked the group to identify strategies that would be grounded in specific courses they taught, but generalizable to a wider variety of disciplines. After proposing many approaches, we noticed that we could group them together into a small handful of techniques, the top four of which are as follows:

  • Ask students to process or translate course material using unusual rhetorical or expressive modes. I have always listened with skepticism to accounts of teachers asking their students to translate course concepts into 140-character status updates. But my workshop participants argued that having students take concepts and rework them in the form of a text message, or a Twitter update, or even visual representations or performances, could have the same defamiliarizing effect that might be achieved by a change in fonts.
  • Require students to argue on behalf of unfamiliar positions. One of my participants was a political scientist who asks her students to debate issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict—and routinely requires them to argue against their personally held convictions. Another participant, who teaches a course for medical students on abortion, does the same. In both cases, they observed, students are forced into the uncomfortable and defamiliarizing position of having to look at a well-trod debate from a new angle.
  • Ask students to find or identify mistakes. A professor of architecture noted that he occasionally makes mistakes while doing calculations on the board, and that his students had learned to watch out for those errors and correct him. A math professor then pointed out that he would sometimes deliberately seed mistakes into assigned problems and ask students to find them. In both cases students were nudged out of the mode of simply observing or running through the problems on automatic pilot. That may seem like an artificial technique, or like playing games with students—but only until you stop and think about how many jobs require people to review presentations, problems, performances, or communications and make sure they are mistake-free.
  • Plan for failure. A faculty member in chemistry said you can wake students up by asking them to undertake short experiments that are designed to fail. Rather than simply going through the motions of a lab, and finding the expected result planned for them by the teacher, students learn what every experienced researcher in the world knows: that experiments, like scholarly research of any kind, almost never proceed exactly as you planned them, and that you can learn a lot from your failures.

The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn – Do Your Job Better – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *