The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn

The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn

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Results of a recent experiment demonstrated that students who read material in difficult, unfamiliar fonts learned it more deeply than students who read the same material in conventional, familiar fonts. Strange as that may seem, the finding stems from a well-established principle in learning theory called cognitive disfluency, which has fascinating implications for teachers.

As the researchers pointed out in the journal Cognition, both students and teachers may sometimes judge the success of a learning experience by the ease with which the learner processes or “encodes” the new information. But learning material easily, or fluently, may sometimes produce shallower levels of learning. By contrast, “making material harder to learn,” the authors wrote, “can improve long-term learning and retention. More cognitive engagement leads to deeper processing, which facilitates encoding and subsequently better retrieval.” In other words, when students encounter cognitive disfluency, and have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.

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