Desirable Difficulties: A Discussion

What does the term “desirable difficulty” mean to you?  How and when is a difficulty desirable?

Before you read any further, try to answer the preceding questions… and if you’re not blog-comment-shy, please share your answer in the comments section below.   You’ll get more out of this post if you try answering the question yourself first.


What is a “Desirable Difficulty?”

In the spirit of spaced-learning reinforcement discussed in last week’s post, I was doing some follow-up reading on the original (and elegant) research quoted and (very helpfully)  linked in that “Back to School” New York Times article by Benedict Carey.

One of the recurring themes mentioned in those research papers is an idea called “desirable difficulty,”  which is a cognitive psychologist’s way of describing a situation which makes something harder to learn initially (harder to “encode”), but nevertheless makes it easier to recall and apply at a later time (easier to “retrieve”).

You could call it simply “No pain, no gain,” or as the process was more precisely described circa 220 CE:

 “Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain.

– Ethics of the Fathers, 5:21

In the research papers, further distinctions are made between short-term retrieval versus long-term retrieval, i.e., learning strategies which maximize immediate recall (often called “regurgitation”) versus learning strategies which maximize long-term recall (often called “really learning something”).

One paper ( shows how interleaving lessons with practice of different, related skills will diminish immediate performance on the practice sessions, but improve performance long-term (most probably because interleaving helps with discrimination between procedures, a key element of real-world problem solving).

Robert A. Bjork —  a major contributor to this concept of “desirable difficulty” in learning research — and some of his fellow researchers describe the situation as follows:

“That a learning difficulty can be desirable in the long run is counterintuitive; students and instructors typically conflate immediate performance with longterm learning and therefore strive to avoid impediments to performance.”

So what feels like a worse (more difficult) way to learn initially can actually be better in terms of tangible, long-term results

This gives us another important explanation why these “brain rules” of good learning are often ignored or even contravened, since we (and our instructors) will tend to gravitate towards instant gratification in our learning.

 “Yeah, yeah, I know that already. Let’s move to the next topic.”  

“No.  You don’t know it.  You recognize having seen something like it before, but you don’t actually know it.  You’ve just been acculturated to this company’s (or generation’s) organizational-ADHD, that’s all.”

– translation of a  conversation made by way of eye contact and facial expressions, which takes places in corporate training rooms and classrooms every single day

Expanding the Term “Desirable Difficulty”

Not to confuse things (just call this an example of “interleaving,” ok?), but I loved this concept of “desirable difficulty” so much that I decided to see what other people thought it meant, outside of the context of learning theory.  In the spirit of research (albeit highly informal and unscientific research… okay, let’s just call it what it is: in the spirit of play) I started asking the following questions in different forums:

What does the term “desirable difficulty” mean to you?

How and when is a difficulty desirable?

Some of the replies to these questions have followed the lines of the learning research:  Difficulty in learning will sometimes (..and that’s an important “sometimes!”) improve retention.  The metaphor of exercising muscles (or brain muscles) was often evoked by some people.

One reply looked at things from a decidedly different perspective:

“(a desirable difficulty is) when you want to be late to an event and there is huge traffic on the highway”– Knoam S

Hmmm… ia that a “desirable difficulty” or just “passive opportunism?”

There’s a similar idea of embracing “happy accidents,” an important principle in the making of art and creative design. In that case, a “desirable difficulty” is a unexpected feature or constraint which results in a better-than-expected result.

it is delicious because it is forbiddenFor many people, the concept of a “desirable difficulty” generalized to something like the following advice for living:

“What (desirable difficulty) means is that nothing that is worth achieving is ever achieved with ease…” – Wallace J

This is an inspirational theme that seems to be a specialty of the blogosphere ( here’s a nice example of one person’s take on it).

Under that overarching umbrella concept of Difficulty = Desirable Achievement, most of the other replies to the questions fell into one of two general themes:

  1. Pain is Pleasure
  2. Pain is Required for Growth

In the process of breaking those down further, some interesting distinctions arose.

1. Pain is Pleasure

Rather than taking a utilitarian view of “desirable” (i.e. desirable from the standpoint of improving information retrieval ), for some people the term resonated on a hedonistic level:  A “desirable difficulty” is something that a person enjoys, despite the exertion of effort.

One example… when you want to solve a new challenge in a computer game, if its too easy, its not so much fun! – Brad T

making something enjoyably challenging. It should be achievable, but something that leaves a feeling of real accomplishment when achieved. – Carl Q

..and so forth.

In the field of Instructional Systems Design (ISD)  there is a notable lack of engaging, fun, motivational (desirable) learning experiences which also produce (desirable) learning results.

A major contributing cause of this gap is ISD is the fixation on all this research (yes, I know, this blog post is one big fixation on learning research…) which looks at the easily measured cognitive and behavioral domains (knowledge and skills development), but which leaves out the harder-to-measure affective domain (attitudinal development) which is “the difference that makes the difference” in effective instruction.

That’s okay.  The scientific researchers can continue working on how to measure and describe the mechanics of human emotion in their labs in the years ahead, the lackluster ISD practitioners can scratch their heads over why nobody likes their training modules, and the  folks that do the combination of real measurable learning + motivation well (SHAMELESS PLUG) will get noticed and hired, right?

2. Pain is Required for Growth

Another major theme was this idea that sometimes people may not like something but it’s ultimately for their own good. Longtime Meme Menagerie Peanut Gallery contributor Nareg described a desirable difficulty succinctly as “important for happiness.”

This territory required much tip-toeing and making-of-distinctions.  One example:

Making life difficult for someone in order to produce the results you are looking for. I don’t like that modus operandi, but sometimes it produces experience and growth for the one being stretched and molded using difficult circumstances. The difficulty is not desired by the one being stretched and molded, but it is desired by the one doing the stretching only because they are looking for a better outcome.

I think difficulty is desired when the one producing the difficulty is doing it to produce good results rather than to make someone miserable. The former is productive, whereas the latter is destructive.”

– Kathleen E

Another person qualified their view of desirable vs. undesirable difficulties as follows:


Testing my creativity to the limits is “desirable difficulty.”  Testing my emotional strength is not desirable difficulty…

– Bob M

Bob:  How to build emotional strength if not by flexing those emotional muscles?

Some people extended the concept further, into areas of social policy:

“It’s desirable for it to be difficult for underage drinkers and smokers to get alcohol and cigarettes? or to not wear seatbelts, without getting caught?”  – Aliza R

..and this is where the distinctions really start coming out:

“I think it’s good to be pushed to the limit sometimes, even though I know it’s risky. Basically it is an attempt to avoid unjustified lethargy or under performance. Some people on welfare (not all) live in a state of expecting too little of themselves. Living conditions can be reduced to an unacceptable level due to lack of effort. It can be impossible to explain to such people that they could do themselves a world of good by accepting reality and accepting the challenges that life throws at them. “ – Alan C

Counterpoint:  “Suck it up, it’s for your own good,” may have its place in the coaching toolkit, but it’s also part of the social-control toolkit of oppression and coercion.

Counter-counterpoint:  The identification of imposed difficulties as a form of “oppression” or “coercion” may often be a disingenuous shield used to deflect personal responsibility, create scapegoats (another tool of social control) and/or to enable a general atmosphere of hippie slackitude.

Counter-counter-counterpoint:  Um, wait, now I’m lost…

What else is hard to do, but nevertheless desirable?

Smiling is hard:  Contrary to the popular myth, it doesn’t actually take more muscles to produce a frown, but the benefits of a genuine smile vastly outweight the energy cost of producing one.

Resisting the temptation to eat a marshmallow is hard:  It’s exceedingly difficult for a three-year-old to do, but whether or not the demonstrated ability to resist a marshmallow  predicts a successful career on Wall Street, well that is still an open question.

Critical Thinking is Hard:  The demonstrated ability to think critically and make distinctions (eg. knowing the difference between an “intelligence,” an “ability” and a “talent”) is difficult to achieve, and will predict a successful career in just about anything. Not an open question, sorry.

What else is hard to do, that you’d like to do more of?

What obstacles are “good” obstacles?


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on September 16, 2010, in Instructional Design, Learning, Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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