Why Organizations Need to Make Learning Hard
“In these days of fast everything (food, internet connections, dating), you can understand why people think lessons should also be easily accessible. Give solutions in bullet points. Let people check their responses to problems immediately. Encourage them to memorize the answers and move on.
Unfortunately, real learning — that is, the kind which embeds knowledge and skills in long-term memory — is never simple. In fact, easy in (little effort to temporarily retain the lesson) typically results in hard out (difficulty in retrieving it when you need it.) Decades of research, most notably by UCLA’s Robert Bjork and his colleagues, have shown several reasons for this apparent paradox.
Both learners and teachers confuse performance during training (termed ‘retrieval strength’) with long-term retention and the ability to apply the lessons (‘storage strength’). Researchers have shown that, in laboratory tests, people quite consistently have ‘illusions of competence.’ That is, they over-estimate their ability to solve future problems when they’ve been given a lot of help during lessons. When shown answers to questions, experiment subjects are likely to think they could have produced them (‘Oh, sure, I knew that!’) And the more familiar the material seems to them, the worse the students do in actually using it. Familiarity breeds complacency.
Fortunately, there are a number of proven ways to strengthen mental storage. The best learning and teaching strategies incorporate various forms of what Bjork terms ‘desirable difficulty.’ Some examples: interleaving different tasks and materials instead of focusing on just one for a big block of time; allowing students to make mistakes and learn from them; requiring students to interpret new material in light of what they already know; and using testing as a mode of instruction rather than evaluation.”