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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Desirable Difficulty

For learning to take place it is necessary for students to expend a degree of effort (1). It is a truism to say that the human memory is not like computer memory – but it is nevertheless worth pointing out and remembering this fact.

Desirable Difficulty

For learning to take place it is necessary for students to expend a degree of effort (1). It is a truism to say that the human memory is not like computer memory – but it is nevertheless worth pointing out and remembering this fact. New learning cannot be simply loaded into a human memory. It is not enough to expose or re-expose students to information or content. For information to be remembered, it must be adequately processed, connected to existing knowledge and registered as important (2-4). Encountering difficulty can help to encode new learning into a student’s long-term memory, creating a foundation for future learning. On the other hand, if a task requires no effort, students are unlikely to remember or engage with what they have learned. 

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      Research has also shown that challenging academic work can be more effective in improving motivation than easier tasks (1). More difficult work and learning can feel more meaningful and can contribute to a student’s sense of growth and mastery, thereby increasing self-efficacy. Students in our co-creation panel recounted instances in which engaging with particularly challenging academic work had led to benefits to their self-concept and positive emotions, such as excitement, interest and joy. 

      However, this does not mean that any level of difficulty is helpful (1). If a new subject or activity is too difficult – if it is too far away from a student’s existing level of knowledge, understanding and/or skill – then students are likely to become overwhelmed and to disengage. When a subject is too hard, students are more likely to avoid it, rather than work harder to master it (2). This can lead to a reduction in self-efficacy and an increase in student self-doubt and imposter syndrome.  

      Given this impact on learning and wellbeing, positioning the difficulty of academic learning is therefore a key task for curriculum design and delivery. Bjork and Bjork (1) suggest that this can be conceptualised as ‘desirable difficulty.’  As they emphasise  

      “... difficulties are desirable because they trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering. If, however, the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully, they become undesirable difficulties.” 

      There is, therefore, a link between creating desirable difficulty, scaffolding the curriculum to students’ current ability and Vygotsky’s concept of the curriculum, guiding students to their zone of proximal development (5). Challenge can be good for wellbeing, providing it is within reach of a student’s current competency. To be able to gauge this properly requires ongoing informal assessment of a cohort’s current level of competency (6). 

      There are a number of techniques that have been shown to improve learning through desirable difficulty. These include using different types of tasks and assessments; so students have to engage deeply with learning through more than one method. Interleaving subject matter, by building connections between different content, rather than teaching content in separate blocks. Using low and no stakes retrieval practice through tests, quizzes and questions in class to build knowledge and understanding (1, 4). 

      Encouraging students to engage with desirable difficulty can also be supported by normalising confusion and uncertainty when encountering new material and concepts and by creating a psychologically safe culture, in which uncertainty is recognised as a step in the learning process (7). Meta-learning can help students to understand that a period of not knowing, prior to passing through a threshold concept, can deepen learning, anchoring it more securely in their memory and making it more accessible for future retrieval (8).  

      Key lessons 

      • Academic challenge and difficulty can support learning, motivation and wellbeing. 
      • The level of difficulty must be calibrated to students’ current levels of knowledge, understanding or skill, or students may become overwhelmed, disengage and experience negative impacts on wellbeing. 
      • This desirable difficulty can be supported by curriculum design and delivery through techniques such as interleaving subject matter, using different learning methods and retrieval practice. 
      • The curriculum can also create a culture in which students feel safe to find new learning difficult at first. 

      Top tips 

      • Use a variety of tasks to explore each subject – even teaching the same material in a different room can strengthen memory and retrieval. 
      • Use retrieval exercises in the classroom to enhance students’ memory and retrieval and to help you identify students’ current learning and any gaps in understanding. 
      • Use regular retrieval exercises to establish and maintain a culture in which students can acknowledge gaps in knowledge and misunderstandings, safe in the knowledge that the response will be to support their learning rather than criticise or chastise 
      • Interleave subjects and help students find the connections between them to enhance understanding and curriculum coherence
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        1. Bjork EL, Bjork RA. Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society. 2011 Jan;2(59-68).
        2. Marsh EJ, Butler AC. Memory in educational settings. In D. Reisberg D, editor. The Oxford handbook of cognitive psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2013. p.299–317.
        3. Ausubel DP. The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of educational psychology. 1960 Oct;51(5):267.
        4. Rosenshine B. Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American educator. 2012;36(1):12.
        5. Vygotsky LS. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard university press; 1980 Oct 15.
        6. Fisher D, Frey N. Guided instruction: How to develop confident and successful learners. Alexandia, VA: ASCD; 2010.
        7. Bandura A. Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review. 1977 Mar;84(2):191.
        8. Meyer J, Land R. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh; 2003 May 4. Available from: