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Why ignorance and discomfort may belong in the learning process

Why ignorance and discomfort may belong in the learning process

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Challenges that push your students out of their comfort zones are inevitable in education. While the initial reactions may lean towards avoidance, there is an increasing body of research suggesting that these moments of discomfort actually play a crucial role in the learning process.

Read on to learn more about:

  • The role of discomfort in learning
  • How discomfort can lead to change
  • Helpful revision techniques to help your students lean into discomfort
  • How to maximise the benefits of discomfort

What role does discomfort play in learning?

Experiencing discomfort during the learning process should not be viewed as a failure by students, but rather as a promising sign of personal growth and progress. This sensation is similar to the muscle soreness we feel after a workout, serving as a tangible reminder that your brain is actively stretching, adapting and evolving to new challenges. And just as muscles grow stronger with each exercise, embracing the discomfort of learning ultimately leads to a more resilient and knowledgeable mind.

According to Cognitive Dissonance Theory, discomfort happens when your students’ beliefs or assumptions are challenged. But it’s this very discomfort that can lead to deeper understanding and more robust knowledge structures. By acknowledging and embracing this, students can pave the way for change and growth.

This discomfort serves as a catalyst for self-reflection and critical thinking, allowing your students to question their preconceived notions and explore alternative perspectives. It encourages them to step out of their comfort zones and engage with new ideas and concepts. Although it may feel uneasy at times, this discomfort is an essential part of the learning journey, leading to personal and intellectual transformation.

How can embracing discomfort lead to change?

One study revealed interesting insights about the interplay between discomfort and engagement. Students enrolled in improvisation classes to boost their confidence showed increased engagement when guided to embrace awkwardness and discomfort.

Typically, we might expect the opposite – that discomfort would discourage participation. However, when students perceived discomfort as a sign of progress, they were more engaged in the exercise. This unexpected outcome underlines the transformative power of reframing discomfort as a catalyst for growth rather than a deterrent.

This is the principle behind the “Zone of Proximal Development” theory, which posits that the best learning occurs just beyond your students’ comfort zone. Embracing discomfort is not merely tolerating difficulty, but actively seeking opportunities to stretch themselves beyond their current capabilities.

3 useful revision techniques that promote learning discomfort

Uncomfortable situations force us to confront our ignorance and challenge our preconceptions. This can lead to “Desirable Difficulties,” a term coined by psychologists, Elizabeth and Robert Bjork.

Desirable Difficulties enhance learning by making it harder to engage with initially but leading to better long-term retention by creating stronger links in knowledge. They include strategies such as:

1. Spacing

This is the practice of spreading out learning sessions over time rather than cramming them into one intense period. This method can initially be uncomfortable as it requires learners to retrieve information that they have partially or fully forgotten from their memory. However, this practice consolidates memory, making it stronger and more durable.

2. Interleaving

This involves mixing up different concepts within a single study session, rather than focusing on one topic at a time. This approach can be challenging, as it requires students to switch often and continually adjust their thinking. However despite the initial discomfort, Interleaving promotes better understanding and retention of material by encouraging the brain to make connections between different concepts.

3. Retrieval Practice

This involves recalling information from memory. Though it may cause initial discomfort, especially when learners first struggle to remember, testing enhances long-term retention more effectively than simply re-reading material. It also provides immediate feedback, allowing students to identify areas of weakness and focus their study efforts accordingly.

These techniques may initially seem counterintuitive but have been shown to be effective. Experiencing discomfort during learning, such as when grappling with new or challenging material, is not only normal but beneficial. This discomfort can serve as a signal of learning and growth, motivating students to engage more deeply with the material.

To help your students better engage with evidence-informed strategies to maximise their potential, book our Studying With The Brain In Mind student workshop today.

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

How can you maximise the benefits of discomfort?

It’s important to guide and support your students through the challenges of the learning process. The best way to do this is to use effective methods that address these difficulties and promote a positive mindset.

Here are some strategies to help encourage this:

  • Normalise discomfort – Let your students know that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable when learning something new. Encourage them to see it as a sign of growth rather than a setback.
  • Create a psychologically safe learning environment – Foster an atmosphere where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, not failures. This encourages students to take risks and venture out of their comfort zones.
  • Provide constructive feedback – Use feedback to guide students through their learning process. Helpful feedback points out areas for improvement while also acknowledging progress.
  • Emphasise process over product – Celebrate effort and persistence over mere outcomes. This encourages students to switch their mindset, welcoming challenges as opportunities for learning.

Fostering a positive learning environment requires a strategic and empathetic approach. By normalising discomfort, you can help your students understand that it’s a natural part of the learning process, encouraging them to push their boundaries. These strategies, when implemented effectively, can transform your classroom into a thriving space for exploration, growth and learning.

Final thoughts

Discomfort and ignorance are not barriers but rather essential milestones in the educational journey. They serve as catalysts for growth, pushing your students beyond their comfort zones into their “Zones of Proximal Development” where true learning occurs. This discomfort, while initially challenging, fosters self-reflection and critical thinking, leading to deeper understanding and long-term retention of knowledge.

Cultivating an environment where discomfort is normalised and seen as a sign of personal and intellectual transformation is the best method to encourage your students’ growth. By providing constructive feedback and emphasising the process over the product, you can guide your students through their learning journey, encouraging them to view challenges not as setbacks, but as opportunities for progress and exploration.

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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