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Psychologist says challenges boost long-term learning

by Sherry Fisher - April 30, 2007

Classroom performance is not a reliable indicator of whether long-term learning has occurred, according to cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork.

“Instruction that makes performance improve rapidly often fails to support long-term retention and transfer,” he says, “whereas teaching that appears to create difficulties for learners – slowing the rate of apparent learning – often optimizes long-term retention.”

Bjork, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles, discussed “How We Learn vs. How We Think We Learn: Implications for the Design and Evaluation of Instruction,” April 25 in Konover Auditorium.

Bjork said his research led him to introduce the term “desirable difficulties,” meaning a set of manipulations that create difficulties and challenges for the learner during instruction, but have a good effect on long-term learning.

Research has shown, for example, that studying material in different places maximizes recall, he said.

“You’ll remember it better than if you studied in one place.” Yet, he noted, students are often told the opposite, such as find a comfortable place to study and always study there.

Instructors should provide what Bjork called “contextual interference.”

That means “if you pick a domain to be learned and look at how the different parts of it might interfere with each other, you can maximize the interference between them in order to facilitate long-term instruction,” he said.

In one study, he said, participants were asked to read an article on the industrial use of microbes.

Half the students were given an outline that had the same structure as the article.

The other students were given an outline that had the same factual information, but was structured differently than the article.

When they were tested for verbatim recall, students with the consistent outline did better, but when tested for a deeper understanding of the material, students who had the inconsistent outline demonstrated better learning.

Bjork said instructors should use tests rather than presentations as learning events.

“Tests are marvelous things from a pedagogy standpoint,” he said.

“The act of retrieving information is far more potent than a presentation of that information in terms of your later ability to recall. Tests give you information about what you do and do not understand, and when you’re looking at information, you can’t make that judgment.

“A student trying to decide what to study for a midterm and looking through a section of a textbook will not be able to make a reliable assessment of whether they can answer questions about it,” he added.

Bjork noted that students often get upset if a lecture differs from simply following the textbook: “Students come with expectations of how they should be taught. If you do things differently, you have a problem because you are violating their expectations.”

But he said that if teachers want to optimize long-term learning, “there’s a role for us. We can arrange curriculum and course assignments. We need to structure courses, curriculum, and activities to engage the processes that enhance learning comprehension and knowledge integration.”

He also said instructors can explain, early in a course, the teaching method that will be used, and how it will facilitate better long-term learning and retention.

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