Live Chat – Making Learning Difficult #2 – Wednesday 13th June

ModSu: Good evening everyone – welcome to tonight’s chat which will start at 8pm. Do feel free to introduce yourself – say a little bit about your particular interests in education and research 🙂 

ModSu: I used to be a primary school teacher, and am now researching the relationship between global and local processing (looking at the whole or focussing on a part) and maths and science performance in primary school children.

Abena: I’m an international school teacher about to start the EdD program at Bath Uni (UK). I’m particularly interested in the application of Positive Psychology concepts to student wellbeing. And also interested in metacognition.

ModSu: Do you have any prep you have to do before starting your course? Not long now – you must be excited 🙂

Abena: I’m SUPER excited. Moodle opens in 3 days. In the meantime, Coursera has been amazing for studying research methods and psychology.

Efrat: Good Evening, I used to be a neuro-cognitive scientist, studied human memory, then decided to become a teacher, and I’m working to bridge science of learning with teaching and learning, working with teachers and students.

Abena: Hello again Efrat. I’d love to do what you do but in reverse!

Efrat: I love it that there is a space to work in between research and education, and I’m so happy to see many people approaching it from different directions. It is essential. 

Abena:  Indeed! 

Helena: Hello all. I am a lecturer in Psychology and teach research methods and open science. At the University of Glasgow in Scotland.


Abena: Do you find that teachers are receptive to applying research findings, especially around desirable difficulties?

Efrat: I’m actually inspired from what I see that is happening in the UK! As for my own experience – I have found that teachers are receptive, but the transition to application is much much harder. I think that teachers need to help students to overcome difficulties (that are desirable), but in the same time they(we) require some support to overcome our own difficulties (that are also desirable)

ModSu: Do you think teachers make use of some of the ‘desirable difficulties’ strategies like retrieval practice and the generation effect, even if they don’t know the research behind it?

Efrat: Yes. often teachers tell me that they are happy to learn about the research, because this is something that they were doing for years, but feel more confident now. And I’m also happy for the current “buzz” as more and more teachers are buying in.


Abena: How would one implement the generation effect in (for example) an English classroom? Is the generation effect inherent in ‘discovery’ learning or am I confusing the concepts?

ModSu: In case you were unfamiliar with the term – the generation effect is when students create their own answers or learning equipment (eg creating flashcards, or filling in missing words).

Efrat: About creating flash cards – I’d make sure student invest more time in using them than in preparing them.

Efrat: I think asking a series of short questions at the beginning of the lesson is great – targeting last lesson material. Let the students “generate” the review, instead of doing it for them.

Abena: You mean students generate the questions for each other?

Efrat: No, answers. Generating questions is higher level – I’d consider this activity for homework from time to time. Mid-lesson quizzing should be a routine in my view…. 


Abena: I’m struggling to see the difference between retrieval practice and the generation effect…don’t they both involve quizzing?

Michelle: I think of it as retrieval practice being about a taking a test (could be one that is created by others or by the learner) and generation is about learners creating (or generating) materials to help their learning. So the overlap would be when a learner generates their own quiz … in some ways that includes both retrieval practice and generation (with the balance between the two depending on the structure of the question).

Abena: OK. I thought it was about responding to cues to produce their own materials, rather than being told explicitly i.e. that they ‘worked it out’ for themselves.

Efrat: So generating is more about the activity, and retrieval is more about the cognitive process.

Helena: Further to this, both of these can involve quizzes or other activities. Generation involves more metacognitive processes than retrieval and so allows for deeper learning of material.

Abena: Thanks for the distinctions. I’ll look into it more.

Carolina: Helena has provided a good explanation regarding the underlying processes and the role metacognition plays. Maybe I can add that I had my Level 3 students generate questions as preparation for the revision session at the end of the semester…and I was very surprised by the quality of the questions. In fact, a few students even guessed my exam questions.

Abena:  I always do this before exams, especially when boards change the specs and practice questions are thin on the ground. I think it really does have a positive impact.


Abena: What are other ways to introduce desirable difficulties?

Helena: Desirable difficulty is anything where the answer is not readily available. For instance, researching and synthesising information but having to find resources, working in a group where everyone has different tasks, having problem or case-based learning.

Abena: I talk to my students about ‘mental sweat’ (not my wording but it works for teens) in relation to desirable difficulties. I find they seem to get it; appreciate that struggle is part of learning (at least they appreciate it more than before). I think the more we make these ideas explicit to our learners, the more useful the concepts are. Just like the transfer from researcher to teacher, we need to make sure the connection is there for students too.

Helena: Challenging things always stay with us for longer, and failure is a very good teacher.

Abena: I find students are less concerned about struggling once they realise it’s a part of learning. They are less afraid to make mistakes and the best thing – they ask more clarifying questions.

Helena: I think the issue comes when learning and assessment is confounded. Assessment requires success, but learning is most effective with struggle.

Abena: Yes! Great way of putting it.

ModSu: Really interesting point Helena.

Carolina: In one meeting, a lecturer in Life Sciences said: The problem with students nowadays is that they are afraid to fail and therefore stop trying. I think there is some truth in this.

Abena: Totally agree. Which is why conversations around learning are essential.

Helena: Desirable difficulties is about putting struggle into the learning process, but making it achievable. Or at least, having resources that make it possible.

Carolina: Yes, agree! The task needs to be challenging, but not impossible.


Michelle: Is any of this trend [increased application of research in teaching/learning] related to the increase in the important of ‘impact’ for research grant funding? In other words are researchers sharing more as well as teachers being interested?

ModSu: Interesting question. Is demonstrating impact something you’re more aware of in your own research? How do you go about showing impact?

Michelle: Ahh, so there are currently government evaluations of the impact of university research. They want to know that our findings are making a tangible difference. There is a lot of debate about this. And, how to measure it is really difficult.

Abena: What are the implications of the evaluations? 

Michelle: The most typical thing that I see from people in psychology would be to have a day-long workshop for teachers during a grant where findings are shared. But, this only fosters one-way communication from researchers to teachers. Without going into too much of the boring details, every 8 years or so we go through a big research evaluation in the UK. How a department does on research is linked to the funding how much government funding they get in the next 8 years. Impact was introduced in the last review. The next review is in a couple of years.

Abena: Maybe a good motivator to produce programs like the Institute for Effective Education.

Michelle: Yes – a good motivator. But as above, most people only do the one-way stuff. It takes initiative and committment to foster two-way conversations. And – those two way conversations are the ones that are going to be most meaningful.

ModSu: Definitely 🙂

Abena: But they (with the Education Endowment Foundation) directly manage research in the classroom, don’t they? I find their database of findings really easy to navigate and understand.

Michelle: Yes, they do. But there is a lot of research about learning that isn’t under the ‘education’ umbrella per se. So there are a lot of folks in cognitive neuroscience or cognitive psychology that rarely talk to teachers about learning. The term ‘desirable difficulties’ comes out of cognitive psychology and is was originally based on studies of memory in psychology labs with undergraduate research participants.


Michella: Abena, what is the most surprising research finding that you’ve found on EEF’s database?

Abena: I’m not sure. I’d say I am surprised sometimes at how ideas in education that are thought of as ‘true’ are often thrown into question by these studies. Ideas that seem intuitively true, but don’t have the evidence to support them…at least not yet. But I also think that’s why it’s great that research is ‘coming out of the shadows’ for teachers, so we can see clearly what we need to reconsider.

Michelle: I think that it’s important to be critical of both sorts of findings. Both those where there is evidence and those where there is not, because sometimes the things we think of as ‘true’ from an educational point of view are really difficult to measure. But – once we start getting an accumulation of evidence saying something that we thought of as ‘true’ might not be, then we probably have to let it go (even if painful!).

Abena: Michelle, what about you? Any surprising findings? Any research – not just from EEF. Have any of your personal ideas been debunked?

Michelle: Ooh that’s an excellent question. This is the problem with hindsight … we think we were right all along … so let me think of a good one… I suppose one idea is related to executive functions (EF). Not sure if you’ve heard of them. They include things like working memory and ignoring distractors, and other things like keeping our attention on things. When I talk about EFs and I describe the everyday skills related to them, I almost always get a question about if there are differences between boys and girls. And our stereotypical behaviours of boys and girls would suggest that there should be, so every time I do an EF study, I check for gender differences. And more than 95% of the time they are really close (and not statistically significant). Most folks don’t report gender differences. And when I ask other researchers they say something similar to me.

Abena: Interesting! And yes – somewhat unexpected.

ModSu: Carolina and Helena, has any research surprised you, or challenged your prior understanding?

Helena: For me it is learning styles. When I first started pedagogical research this was all the rage. However, it is now clear that learning styles are more a myth. People do have different preferences, but they still learn with different styles.

Abena: I still see this coming up in Professional Development at times and it worries me how slowly these things are picked up on.

Carolina: For me it is a recent findings that handwritten notes are better for later performance than slide annotations. I wrote a blog post about his here: 

ModSu: Yes, I found that research really interesting 🙂

Abena: Ah, I saw that earlier this week. I wasn’t so surprised, I guess because of personal experience.

Michelle: A very nice blog Carolina. I saw it a few days ago as well. 🙂


ModSu: Thanks so much for the discussion this evening. Enjoy the rest of your week, and hope to see you at the next live chat! 🙂

Abena: Thank you all so much. Very interesting as always.


Posted on June 14, 2018 by in Live Chat Transcript. Comments Off on Live Chat – Making Learning Difficult #2 – Wednesday 13th June