Beast Mode Study – Part 3: Desirable Difficulties

Surely that’s an oxymoron. Surely only a deoxygenated moron would desire difficulties. Life is about finding the easy routes right? Tell me the right route requires relatively relaxing rambling. Desirable difficulties? Damn Daniel! Surely it’s a joke.


Let’s break this down to its foundations.


Desirable: wished for as being an attractive, useful, or necessary course of action.

Difficult:  needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.


Desirable – I suppose if the outcome or goal on the other side is attractive even if the initial study is as ugly as a drunk Blobfish. Useful, necessary…


Difficult – needing much effort etc. Well I guess that’s the hang up word? Can’t we just find the easier trail? Maybe a travelator like the ones at the airport? Desirable simplicities. It may not be an alliteration, but it rings okay I reckon. There must be a reason difficult study is desirable.


From the Wikipedia definition: A desirable difficulty is a learning task that requires a considerable but desirable amount of effort, thereby improving long-term performance. … Research suggests that while difficult tasks might slow down learning initially, the long-term benefits are greater than with easy tasks.


This term was coined by Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist in 1994. 


The truth is, as plenty of research, study and I dare say your own anecdotes tell us, the most difficult learning periods yield the greatest results.


So, we’re talking about “beast mode study” methods. How does this apply? 


In the last blog post (go back and check it out or re-read it when you have time,) we talked about active vs passive recall. Just as passive recall methods may help with temporary performance, but it is the active recall that really helps lock in learning and improving long term performance, the same can be said of easy vs difficult tasks, concepts, learning material etc. 


Sometimes we can be tricked into feeling like we are learning because things are coming easy. Like re-reading a textbook. We’re familiar with the words and so we’re all “yip, yip, knew that yip.” This form of popular study has however been shown to be less effective than say, flashcards where you have to reach, sometimes quite deeply, into the squishy mind matter to retrieve learned information. The process is way more complex than simply looking at a familiar word or term.


The thing to look forward to when you first start a hard topic, is that once you get through that tough initiation, studying similar topics, tangential topics and even, if you can make connections, what may be considered unrelated subjects, becomes easier.


In physical training, any amount of effort tends to be hard at first if training is new to you. However, once the body has been adequately prepped, there is really only one way for it to grow and that is to overload the muscles progressively. It is to challenge them. No challenge no growth. Something happens when a person trains. At first it is very difficult. That is why many people give up early, before they ever reach any set goals or see any results. But if they stick it out through the initial launch, it gets easier not just on the same program but to learn and work through new programs. In other words, starting a completely new exercise is easier to adapt to once someone has already begun a program and pushed through the catalyst stage. Even though you are learning new exercises you learn and adapt more quickly than if you were completely new to exercise as a whole.  


The point is, when it comes to learning, adapting, and retaining difficulty is desirable. It has to be balanced of course. I’m not talking throwing someone who has never swum before into the Mariana trench. It’s about challenging the mind – making the concepts reachable but not making it too easy.


Researchers at Princeton University conducted an experiment to determine if different fonts had an effect on learning and memory improvement. The group of 18 to 40-year-olds were assigned to memorise information given to them in writing. At first, they had to memorise information given to them in the easy-to-read font Arial. They had 90 seconds. The test that followed yielded a 72.8% average score. The same students went through the same process but with a more difficult-to-read font, Comic Sans MS. This time they scored 86.5% correct!


In another study conducted by Indiana University researchers studied text font in classroom settings. 


The researchers used differing fonts in worksheets and PowerPoint slides across 6 different high schools among over 200 students. 


Proceeding test performances were markedly higher when students were given material in difficult-to-read fonts.

The researchers felt that the results were brought about by forcing the students to use, in their own words, “deeper processing strategies.” Because the text was harder to read, the students had to think harder to work through the work.


The last point that I’ll make on ‘Desirable Difficulties’ is that by encouraging the brain to work through difficult challenges you can also broaden its ability to become more innovative and creative especially with problem solving. We create many memory retrieval pathways making it easier to figure out different routes if one is blocked. 


Winston Churchill said, “Difficulties mastered, are opportunities won.” 


Don’t run from difficult study and experiences; embrace it. It may be like embracing and wrestling a big grizzly bear but this bear ain’t gonna eat you unless you let it. If you hang on tight and not tap out, you will eventually gain dominion over the grizzly. It will become your powerful ally. Imagine having a grizzly bear as an ally. Nobody would mess with you.


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