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4 ways to get students to use Desirable Difficulties in independent study

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep
  • The science of learning

How do we best help our students become better independent learners? For this, one of the key concepts we need to familiarise them with is Desirable Difficulties.

But what exactly are Desirable Difficulties? How can students effectively use them when studying independently? And how do you facilitate this process? Read on to find out more about

  • What the research says about Desirable Difficulties
  • The pros and cons of Desirable Difficulties
  • 4 ways to help students incorporate Desirable Difficulties

What does the research say about Desirable Difficulties?

The concept of “Desirable Difficulties” was first introduced by psychologists, Elizabeth and Robert Bjork in the 1990s. They suggested that incorporating specific challenges into the learning process could significantly enhance long-term retention and understanding. This may include areas such as retrieval, delayed feedback, varying the conditions of learning and spacing.

Whilst Desirable Difficulties may initially lead to frustration and a perceived reduction in performance, research shows they play a crucial role in promoting deeper processing, active engagement and long-term retention.

Research has found that this challenge and effort, while being the reason why students often resist Desirable Difficulties, ultimately have a positive impact on learning outcomes and the transfer of knowledge and skills. This led to the development of the “Start and Stick to Desirable Difficulties” framework, which highlights the benefits of this approach, providing strategies for classroom implementation.

It’s important to understand that when students grapple with these difficulties, their brains are compelled to work harder, fostering stronger neural connections and better information retention. In essence, the harder the brain works, the stronger it gets. Further research has found that introducing Desirable Difficulties such as testing leads to improved long-term retention as opposed to just re-studying.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

The Desirable Difficulty Conundrum

Desirable Difficulties foster deeper comprehension, promote active involvement and enhance memory retention. For example, research found that Desirable Difficulties enhance metacognitive skills. When students face challenges during learning, they are compelled to reflect on their understanding, evaluate their strategies and adjust their approach accordingly, which leads to better self-regulated learning.

Further research suggests that Desirable Difficulties are a positive force as they enhance problem solving abilities. In this research, students who solved problems which they struggled with performed better because this forced them to think critically, which consequently allows them to focus on their critical thinking skills.

However, it’s important to acknowledge the initial challenges of Desirable Difficulties. They can induce frustration and give students the impression that they are underperforming. This would make students less likely to engage with Desirable Difficulties as it affects their confidence and turns learning into a somewhat uncomfortable experience.

Despite this, it’s important to recognise that the use of Desirable Difficulties is better in the long run. Understanding this may be key to your students engaging with them in their independent learning.

4 ways to help students incorporate Desirable Difficulties in their independent learning

Encourage your students to adopt Desirable Difficulties in their own studying by providing clear instruction on how best to use them and explaining their benefits. Creating a supportive environment where students feel comfortable tackling challenges and making mistakes is key.

So, what are some types of activities that prompt students to think harder, that they can use during independent learning?

Spaced repetition

Also known as Spacing, this learning strategy involves distributing study sessions over time to enhance long-term retention. Research suggests that students who used Spaced Repetition show significant improvements in long-term memory performance compared to those who cram all their studying into one session.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice is an active learning strategy where students recall information from memory, rather than merely reviewing it. Research has shown students who used Retrieval Practice performed better on subsequent tests than those who merely reviewed the material.

You can facilitate this through quizzes or past papers, and can encourage students to make their own flashcards for independent study.


This involves mixing different topics or types of problems during study sessions. Research suggests that Interleaving helps students develop flexible thinking and better transfer their knowledge to new situations. It is worth noting that due to the complex nature of Interleaving (i.e. it may work best on things students tend to get confused by) it is worth starting with this being led by their teacher. To dig a bit deeper on this, check out our Interleaving blog here.


This strategy encourages students to explain concepts in their own words, make connections to prior knowledge, and ask themselves questions to deepen understanding. Research suggests students who used elaborative strategies such as self-explanation showed improved problem solving abilities and better conceptual understanding.

Final thoughts

Desirable Difficulties, though initially challenging, serve as a powerful mechanism for improving long-term learning and comprehension. Encouraging your students to embrace these challenges, providing them with effective strategies, and nurturing an environment that supports growth and exploration will significantly enrich their independent learning journey.

For a comprehensive understanding of the brain’s role in learning and to equip your students with the necessary skills, book our engaging “Studying With The Brain In Mind” student workshop today.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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