“Desirable Difficulty”

A_rocky_pathThat sounds like an oxymoron, to be sure, but it turns out that things that count as obstacles in our way are those things which are directly responsible for our learning and growth. Any sort of stone or roadblock that causes us to flex, to snap out of a reverie, to think creatively to overcome something is offering us the chance to pay attention.

Our human brains are designed to find the path of least resistance, and often, when they do, we go into a sort-of autopilot mode. This is adaptive, because it allows us to conserve energy and multitask, but it also means that we stop being fully aware of what we’re doing. Think about how many times during the day your mind wanders off while your body is still performing – driving to and from familiar places, washing the dishes, taking notes in a lecture. Sometimes, this is useful. I know that I often do my best ‘writing’ when I am walking the dog and my mind strays to explore other ideas or work out some thorny issue I can’t seem to solve when I’m sitting at my laptop.

Sometimes, though, it is important for us to really pay attention, and that is where “desirable difficulty” comes in. If you find yourself in a class where it is important for you to really assimilate and understand the information, do yourself a favor and introduce some level of difficulty – take notes by hand instead of typing them or force yourself to add drawings to your notes. There is increasing evidence that these kinds of tricks are incredibly valuable when it comes to retention and comprehension of difficult material, and often, when you take notes by hand with lots of space for doodling in the margins, you find yourself drawing conclusions about what you’re learning and expanding your interest in the subject.

Because of our tendency to find the ruts and settle in to the simplest way of doing things, we often miss opportunities to deepen our knowledge. But sometimes, tripping over a rock in the path can cause us to look up and notice something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

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