I’m happy to report that this year, I’ve followed through on at least one of my New Year’s resolutions – to read more (non-fiction) books. It’s been going great, except for the sad fact that usually after I read a book, I can recall precious little of its contents. 

I’ve been treasure hunting – looking for the magic formula that will help me learn, process and remember everything so that I can put my new knowledge from books, articles and courses to good use. I’ve been scouring the learning science literature for years but coming up short.

TL;DR Expending effort to make learning stick is hard work, but pays off in the long run.

My first career was in the classroom. 

I primarily taught students with disabilities – kids whose intellectual, social, and physical challenges got in the way of school success. As an avid consumer of professional development, I learned a ton from other experienced, knowledgeable educators and one of the lessons that stood out most was that I needed to engage students in learning. Yep! I needed to make learning fun, interesting, and easy. And so I did. We had music, stickers, and games. We had contests, pizza parties, and assemblies. We cut, colored and pasted, and showed off our projects. And sure, there was homework: spelling words, math problems, essays… I taught study strategies and gave tests and quizzes. But did my students learn? That depends on what you think learning is. What is learning? Stop reading right now, close your eyes and think about the definition of learning. 

Learning is… acquiring knowledge? Change in behavior? Memorizing information? 

What did you come up with? There are so many definitions of learning I can hardly choose a favorite, but if I could, it would be one that includes not only acquiring knowledge (or skill), but also the ability to demonstrate understanding or use (apply) the new information, both of which require being able to pull the information or new knowledge from memory. Many definitions of learning are limited to acquiring new knowledge, while others include behavior change as a necessary facet. If learning requires behavior change or demonstration, I can’t honestly tell you whether I’ve “learned” to solve quadratic equations. At one time, I was quite good at it, earning high marks on school exams. I clearly acquired the knowledge. But if you gave me a problem to solve today, I doubt I could do it without re-learning. I also wrote school papers on nuclear energy, Rene Descartes, and automotive airbags, but I can tell you next to nothing about these topics today. 

Desirable Difficulty – One of my favorite oxymorons

University of California researcher Robert Bjork coined the term “desirable difficulty” in 1994 in reference to learning. Bjork’s key message is that we want learning to be effortful. We do! Effortful learning produces more durable knowledge that can be retrieved or recalled easier and applied whenever and wherever it’s needed. While the brain isn’t exactly a muscle, this metaphor can help us understand how learning works. When you lift weights, your muscles work hard to adapt to the “new condition” of having to support increased weight, and thus, they get stronger and stronger as you continue to work out (a gross oversimplification, of course). When we try to learn new material, and continue to stress our brains just a little bit by trying to retrieve or recall the new information we are, in a sense, exercising the neural connections in the brain in an attempt to make them stronger and longer lasting. The “desirable” difficulty we experience when we try to practice retrieving what we’ve learned interrupts the forgetting process, one of the many benefits of retrieval practice

Push-ups, bench presses, cycling or running…it’s going to hurt a little

If we want to get stronger, faster or better in any physical pursuit it’s going to get uncomfortable. Our practice is going to make us grit our teeth, tense up and gut it out until we achieve our goals. What makes us think then, that we can simply sit back with a cup of tea by the fire, read a book, and call it learning?  

Why can’t I just reread and study what I want to remember? 

Do you remember everything you learned in high school or college? Did you reread and reread and reread your textbooks and notes until you could pass the tests? Tell me… could you pass all those same tests today? Why? 

Part of the reason is, if you’re over the age of about 25, you need to learn actively vs passively in order to retain and be able to use what you’ve learned. In other words, you can’t just let the information stream in without making an effort to attend to it, focus on it, and work with it (i.e., do something active, like retrieval practice). 

Whether you realize it or not, the reason you know the information that you know today is because you’ve retrieved it enough to make that learning stick. You’ve called it down from the recesses of your brain over and over and over again, and you’ve used or applied it somehow. I still know my multiplication facts, the names of all 50 US states (in alphabetical order!), and how to greet someone in French (and tell them that I studied the language for 6 years but have forgotten beaucoup 🙂 ). On the other hand, how to use trigonometric functions, the names of most metamorphic rocks, and conjugation of the pluperfect tense in French have faded away over the years, even though I was once able to pass tests on them. Rereading and cramming for tests does not produce durable, long-lasting knowledge. 

What can we do to create desirable difficulty? 

First, go learn something from a book, article, or course. Determine what it is you want to remember from the material. What’s important to know? What might help you solve a problem or improve a skill? Maybe even sketch out a list of questions you want to be able to answer later. 

Woman with open book looking out a window as if thinking hard.

Then, before you go back and reread the material or your notes do one of these things:

  • Close your eyes and try to remember what you learned.
  • Take out a sheet of paper and write down what you learned.
  • Tell a friend, family member or patient pet what you learned. Try the Feynman Technique.
  • If you created questions from the material or your notes, try answering them without looking back. 

Are these strategies difficult to do? Yes. Do they sometimes feel like a giant pain in the butt? Yes. Are they worth it if you want to remember and apply what you learned? Definitely, yes. 

Give it a try and let me know if working through desirable difficulties to learn something new works for you.