We have to develop a learning ethic of sweat value.
Several years ago, Kornell of Williams College and Bjork of UCLA published a study called “Learning Concepts and Categories: Is Spacing the ‘Enemy of Induction’?” Their research tested whether spacing hindered inductive learning, defined as “learning a new concept or category by observing exemplars” (585). They were expecting spacing to hinder induction, assuming that spacing would make pattern recognition less apparent. Given the recent attention to spacing and interleaving, you are probably thinking their assumption was wrong. You’re correct. Spacing consistently proved to be better, but that’s not the point I want to focus on.
Each experiment contained a final question: “What presentation condition, massing or spacing, was more effective for learning a given artist’s style?” 78% of the participants believed massing to be the better preparatory exercise. 78% of participants were wrong. Spacing was overwhelmingly the better preparation, which is puzzling. How can 78% of participants be completely wrong about the more effective learning strategy for themselves? Don’t they know themselves better? The research found that the false assumption— easy learning is efficient and difficult learning inefficient—persisted (591). What the researchers ultimately concluded was that spacing produces a “desirable difficulty.”
I like the concept “desirable difficulty.” It’s ascetic and doesn’t disregard the idea of “work smarter, not harder.” But sometimes, smarter working is working harder. Apparently, there’s no shortcut for committing information to memory. We have to develop a learning ethic of sweat value.
Look—the learning styles idea has been debunked. And I’m not saying learning preferences aren’t ever beneficial. But the research is telling us that just because one method feels more natural than another doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. Ease can be deceptive. When it comes to remembering information or recognizing patterns, the easy way is the long way, hoodwinking us to believe we’re learning better.
So, we don’t know ourselves very well. That’s an interesting point, given that our Cistern has γνῶθι σαυτόν emblazoned upon its archway. Kornell and Bjork’s research is a reminder that the Delphic oracle remains forever a goal to pursue for ourselves and our students. We as faculty get to participate in the process of showing students that appearances can be deceiving, that what we think we are seeing is not always correct or accurate or valid. Check the sources. Test the hypotheses. Question our experiences. Teaching students to check information is a privilege not to be taken for granted ever and is vital to the sustainability of our democracy.
We can and should add interleaving to our classrooms, but the real gain will happen when students equate learning with working. We’re going to have to show them the data, be forthright about the process of interleaving, and recognize its presence in our classrooms. They won’t believe us straightaway, but explain the method behind the madness. Let them be the doubting Thomases of academia so that seeing can be believing. It’s going to take time, but we need to help them let go of the comfort-food notion that easy learning is better learning.