Simplifying disciplines for novices is a big part of the job but making things hard is how we make things stick, says Harry Fletcher-Wood

In Rob Coe’s memorable formulation, learning “happens when people have to think hard”. As his very next line noted, however, this is “vague” and “over-simplistic”. It tells us nothing about how we ensure our students are thinking hard, and begs the question whether our training and systems place enough value on doing so.

A recent report from Deans For Impact implies that new teachers may not recognise the value of thinking hard. The report notes that a student “needs to actively think about information in order to remember it – simply being repeatedly exposed to the information is not enough to create a long-term memory.”

Yet they found that almost none of the American trainee teachers they questioned appreciated this. Asked whether it was true or false that “Any kind of repeated exposure to information makes it more likely the information will be moved into long-term memory” only six per cent of trainees correctly identified this as false. As the authors point out, “Exposure to information is not, by itself, enough […] Information can only be remembered if the learner actively thinks about it.”

What we value affects our practice. The trainees in this research didn’t just lack theoretical knowledge; offered a choice of activities and asked which would best help students to remember new learning, only 13 per cent were able to select the activity that best promotes meaningful thinking.

Not all difficulties are desirable

As to what kinds of activities those are, two papers offer valuable guidance. The first, by Pooja Agarwal, looked at the value of different kinds of questions for encouraging particular kinds of thinking. She found that asking factual questions improved students’ memories of those facts, while asking questions demanding more complicated thinking improved students’ memories of more complicated thinking. This supports a theory that “encoding processes engaged during learning” need to “match retrieval processes engaged during testing”. In other words, we need to get students to practise the kind of thinking we want them to be able to do.

The second, by Bob and Elizabeth Bjork, explains the value of “making things hard on yourself, but in a good way”. The authors describe the value of desirable difficulties which strengthen the “storage strength” of memories – the durable connections between one memory and other, related, knowledge and skills. High storage strength for a memory makes it last, even if we don’t use it for a long time. For example, we may not have played a game or musical instrument for years, but find that the hours of practice we once put in come back to us when we pick it up again.

Desirable difficulties include:

  • Interleaving: practising a mixture of topics or questions at once, rather than focusing on one kind of question at a time.
  • Spacing: leaving gaps between teaching and revision sessions, rather than learning or practising only one topic at a time.
  • Generating answers, solutions and procedures: “Basically, any time that you […] look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could […] generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity.”
  • Varying the conditions or the context of practice: asking students to practise in different situations or answer different kinds of questions.

Not all difficulties are desirable. If they are so difficult that students can’t answer correctly, they will only cause frustration. Nor will this approach suit every topic and subject. If you are following a narrative in English or in history, it makes little sense to interleave it with other topics (although you could ask students to make links to other stories they have studied previously). However, correctly pitched and judiciously applied, these difficulties can help students think harder, forming stronger memories that can be retrieved more easily later.

When we introduce desirable difficulties and practise the challenging thinking we want students to do, we make the learning process harder; but we make the learning product richer, deeper and more secure. Perhaps Rob Coe’s claim that “Learning happens when people have to think hard” is more profound than it initially seems. It should guide everything we do as teachers.