A suggestive article by James M. Lang on the positive effects of a little difficulty. Barriers between a learner and material to be learned, even if it’s just an unfamiliar font, can improve learning. Here’s the idea in a nutshell.
To put this as oversimply as possible, learning material in fluent conditions—easy-to-read fonts, clear causal connections—is like driving to the grocery store on cognitive automatic pilot. You get from Point A to Point B, but you are not really paying close attention, and, hence, are unlikely to remember your trip in any detail later.
Learning material in disfluent conditions would be like driving to a grocery store in England if you are an American, having to navigate an unfamiliar route from the other side of the road. Getting the job done in such challenging conditions compels you to slow down and think more carefully, and so you are much more likely to remember details of the experience.
Of course, one can make the barrier too much of an impediment, the result of which may be students turning off or giving up entirely. There needs to be a balance.
The lesson of the power of “cognitive disfluency” connects to what I do in the classroom, and what my colleagues do, in a couple of ways worth thinking about:
- assignment sheets – I try to spell out as clearly as possible what I want students to do and what will count as a successful performance, but now I wonder if I am always steering the best course in my assignment sheets. I do not want to mystify things, like I think overly-terse assignment sheets can do, but I think it might be useful to make tactical use of gaps. If students have to do a little work to figure out how to best meet the assignment, perhaps they will do better on it? Maybe that work would amount to an investment that a student will be more likely to make than she would if she knew (or thinks) it’s all spelled out on the sheet and can be consulted later.
- reading selections – It might be worth thinking a bit more deliberately about the level of cognitive disfluency a reading selection will induce in students. I think, like friend and colleague at CofC, Chris Warnick, that difficulty is essential in fostering students’ growth (maybe I even stole that from Chris), so I am committed to that model. But, just to go with the example of selecting literary texts for a college-level lit class, for my classes in the fall, I will be considering the following
- Getting an early read on my students’ level of comfort with more difficult selections (How to do that, though, I haven’t figured out. Class discussion, survey, meetings, etc., all seem possible means of finding this out)
- Adjusting readings, if needed, to modulate between more difficult pieces and less difficult ones.
- Giving deliberate reading instruction, as needed — my colleague and friend Doryjane Birrer uses a marginalia-writing exercise, for example, and I would like to do more of that. This runs a risk in that students can think you’re teaching “down” to them, but maybe that feeling can be reduced with contextualization and explanation of the goals.
Finally, a last thought, and one related to the final bullet above: teaching with readings and assignments that induce cognitive disfluency or dissonance (those are probably two different things, but there are similarities in this connection), may get you/me into trouble with students, who, we are told, want things related to their immediate or near-term concerns. Teaching with targeted difficulty will seem to fly in the face of the demand that instruction matter in an immediate and/or obvious way to your/our students’ lives. Of course, difficulty only seems to fly in the face of this need to connect what we are learning with our lives (a need for everyone, probably), for the experience of working through difficulty and developing strategies for doing so, will improve students’ reading and their thinking, and even, probably, their coping skills. I’ll be trying to figure out a way to make that clear to them.