Effort in Learning

I’m disappointed to see so much effort put into making learning effortless (learning styles, cognitive enhancing drugs etc.). One of the most basic components of learning is the laying down of memory traces. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to learn, there will be a memory component necessary, or it isn’t learning.

Another critical component of learning involves the correct reactivation of those traces. If you can’t recall what you’ve learned, then you haven’t really learned it. Laying down memory traces, and strengthening them so they can be reactivated takes energy. Whenever the brain uses energy in a directive fashion, effort is involved.

In fact, research into cognition clearly demonstrates that the more effort that is put into learning something, the better it will be recalled in the future. That effort can be either in the encoding (the learning) or the retrieval (the recall), and in fact effort in both compounds the learning effect. Bjork’s Desirable Difficulties paper has been one of the mainstays of my teaching about evidence based education. The idea that we make it as easy as possible for students to learn is missing the point. Requiring them to invest energy in the process and put real effort into the process is what fosters learning.

A few of my students had a real discussion on the topic this past spring that clarified a lot of their thinking about effortful recall and its effect on learning.