Learning Improves with Challenge? Really?

Brain based information

There is a common myth out in the education world:   If information feels easy to absorb, then our students have learned it well!

I often have the wonderful opportunity to observe teachers in their classrooms.  Rather than study their teaching habits, I’m looking for HOW the students respond to the teaching, content, strategies, environment and other students during the learning process.  I’m quite surprised how many students quickly finish “the practice” that goes along with the assignment.  They complete it in “compliance” and to just get the assignment finished.  Quite frankly, I’m not even sure much thinking is required to finish the assignment sometimes.

I really want to ask the teachers BEFORE they teach just how much background knowledge the students have on the lesson outcome.  Sometimes it seems as if they have taught this lesson to them several times.  The assignment is easily and quickly completed, with very little active engagement involved at all.  Therefore, the teacher and students think they successfully learned the content!

The Research

Research suggests that when students put forth great effort to understand information and learn it, they actually can recall it much better.  In other words, we should design lessons, activities and assessments that challenge students to think deeply about the information.  This action tells the brain “Hey this is important, so please remember it!”

Psychologists performed this research by having one group of students read difficult material in unfamiliar fonts and another group read the same article with conventional, familiar fonts.  They found that the students who read the difficult material in unfamiliar fonts actually learned the content from the article more deeply than the latter group. This phenomenon is called cognitive disfluency.  They also created passages with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking the font size, and making the page blurry to challenge the reader.  Same results.

Teachers and students may think that learning material with ease and speed is the better route, but the researchers showed that “making material harder to learn can improve long-term learning and retention.  More cognitive engagement leads to deeper processing, which facilitates encoding and subsequently better retrieval.”  Diemand-Yauman C; Oppenheimer DM; Vaughan EB, 2010)

Many other experiments suggest that the more effort one puts toward learning, the more the information may sink in more deeply.  “Disfluency” during the learning process can produce greater retention.  The careful, deep thinking of learning something that is “disfluent” can be very beneficial to memory encoding of that content.

 I personally like the analogy that James M. Lang, professor of English at Assumption College and author of On Course:  A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2008) created about cognitive disfluency:

“To put this as (over)simply as possible, learning material in fluent conditions—easy-to-read fonts, clear causal connections—is like driving to the grocery store on cognitive automatic pilot. You get from Point A to Point B, but you are not really paying close attention, and, hence, are unlikely to remember your trip in any detail later.” (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Benefits-of-Making-It/132056/)

Smarter, Brain-Friendly Approaches & Strategies to Support This Research

1.)  Pre-Assess – Pre-assessments enable educators to know if a concept is going to be challenging or too easy for most of the students.  The educator, before teaching, can therefore design the lesson so that the brain is really thinking and challenged with the concept at hand.

2.)  Interleave Assignments –   An interleaved assignment mixes concepts apart from one another so students cannot easily complete the assignment based on a familiar pattern, rule (grammar rule, etc.) or theorem.  They have to think about how to solve the problem versus just determine, “Oh this group of math problems all follow the same pattern or equation.”  Therefore, the students’ brains will have to think deeper about the problems since they are not grouped by similar type.  Interesting research:  Researchers found that when baseball players practiced hitting several different kinds of pitched (interleaving) versus the same type of pitch in a row, their performance was improved since they were more ready for a variety of types of pitches, which simulates the real game (California Polytechnic State University).

3.)  Offer Complex Texts Often – The clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts.  This is one reason why Common Cores State Standards is asking for teachers to give their students more opportunities to grapple with complex text (ACT, 2004).  I wonder if the creators of CCSS knew about cognitive disfluency?  But don’t forget that research has shown the best predictor of reading achievement (among 13 countries) was:  enjoying the reading (allowing students to choose books based on interest) (Jihyun, 2014).

4.)  Make Mistakes!  This one is easy for me – not on purpose either!  Rather than students looking through notes or copying down what you’ve taught from the board, make them aware that mistakes are present and they should try to find them!  Students are then out of autopilot mode and into a mode of “I’m trying to find…”  To make it even more fun, make it a team game:  Who can find the most mistakes in shortest period of time. (Adapted from James M. Lang)

5.)  Ask Students to Debate the Opposite View!  We know that the CCSS is asking students to write argumentative/opinion pieces often.  But what if we asked students to study the opposite view of the unfamiliar perspective of what they actually hold and TRY to persuade others through speaking and writing? (Adapted from James M Lang)

Based on the cognitive fluency research, educators know to take the time to plan strategies and activities that challenge the brain into thinking more deeply so that memory can be enhanced.



ACT, Inc. (2004). Crisis at the core: Preparing all students for college and work. Iowa City, IA.
Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. (2010)  The Invisible Gorilla:  How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.  Harmony
Diemand-Yauman C,  Oppenheimer DM, Vaughan EBCognition. 2011 Jan; 118(1):111-5. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012. Epub 2010 Oct 30
Jihyun, Lee.  Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 106(2), May 2014, 364-374. Doi: 10.1037/a0035609.
NGA Center for Best Practices. (2005). Reading to achieve: A governor’s guide to adolescent literacy. Washington, DC: Author.
Lang, James M.  (June 3, 2012).  The Chronicle of Higher Education:  The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn

Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: lnickelsen@comcast.net or visit her website: http://www.maximizelearninginc.com.

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