Should learning be hard?

Research tells us that effortful learning is more durable. But we want to make it easy for students to learn, right? Should learning be hard? (Public domain image via

Research tells us that effortful learning is more durable. But we want to make it easy for students to learn, right? Should learning be hard? (Public domain image via

The Calvin Cycle was the bane of my existence as a high school freshman.

I was in a biology class. In the midst of surviving swimming practices, working part-time at Burger King and trying to navigate all of my other classes, I was required to learn the Calvin Cycle, start to finish. (It didn’t help that my swim coach was my biology teacher, too.)

Thanks to Google and Wikipedia today, I now know that the Calvin Cycle has to do with converting carbon dioxide into new cells in plants. (I think.) It consists of three phases, and each phase has multiple steps. (Again, I think.)

I worked for weeks to memorize the Calvin Cycle. I drew out diagrams. I left parts out and quizzed myself. I tried to draw it out from scratch to see what I had left out.

I took the test and, although I don’t remember my exact score, I’m pretty sure I nailed all the steps in the Calvin Cycle. (Of course, even though I knew all the steps, I’m not convinced that I knew exactly what those steps did and how they fit into life on Earth. But that’s a post for a different day.)

The Calvin Cycle: the bane of my existence as a high school freshman. (Wikipedia / Mike Jones / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Calvin Cycle: the bane of my existence as a high school freshman. (Wikipedia / Mike Jones / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Learning the Calvin Cycle was one of the hardest things I remember doing in high school.

I didn’t like learning it. It didn’t come easy to me, but I eventually did learn it. (But I remember very little about it today. So … did I actually “learn” it? Again, a post for a different day.)

Intuitively, I think, “Learning shouldn’t be hard like that. Learning should be easy, right? When it makes sense, it’s easy to understand and it clicks. Then we’ve got it.”

But I think of concepts I’ve had to work hard to learn and realize that I know them very well because I struggled to understand them. Things like the Calvin Cycle and the steps I learned in lifeguarding for getting someone with a spinal injury on a backboard safely.

Should learning be hard?

Some research suggest that it should be. In “Make It Stick,” author Peter C. Brown writes about an experiment with the baseball team at California Polytechnic State University.

One group of players were thrown 45 pitches — 15 balls of three different types of pitch (like 15 fastballs, 15 curveballs and 15 change-ups). For another group, the three types of pitches were mixed randomly throughout the 45 pitches. The batters never knew what pitch was coming next.

How did it turn out? Both groups’ hitting skills were assessed after six weeks. The group with random pitches showed more improvement than the group with isolated pitches.

“Some difficulties that require more effort and slow down apparent gains … will feel less productive at the time but will more than compensate for that by making the learning stronger, precise and enduring,” Brown wrote of the study.

It’s easy to dismiss that research as “sports related” and inconsequential to the learning that happens in the educational setting. But in many ways, learning a skill is learning a skill. Learning to analyze literature or conjugate Spanish verbs or work through chemical reactions are all skills to learn.

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful, Brown writes.

However, I can think back to my own experiences in the classroom and see the exact opposite.

As my students learned new vocabulary, I was constantly on the lookout for mnemonic devices or clever tricks to help them remember words.

Some were simple: an easy way to remember the meaning of the verb cantar (to sing) in Spanish is “I can’t sing.” (Cantar … can’t.)

Others were more complex: at one point, I remember using these two ridiculous acronyms — PEGLICT and FIDFOD — to help students knew whether to use the word por or para in Spanish. (Now I can’t even remember what they stood for, but I remember those crazy words we came up with!)

For years, I’ve practiced new vocabulary and grammar with students by creating stories in class — and having the class help me in creating them — while using our new content. Many students would tell you that the stories didn’t seem like work at all. But those stories were providing the important “comprehensible input” that helped their brains make sense of the new language.

Maybe it depends on the student. Or the content. Or the usage of the learning strategy.

I’m still stumped on this question, but I do know this: Making learning unnecessarily difficult doesn’t help anyone. And helping students breeze over content so they’ll get a good grade without learning doesn’t help anyone.

I’ve seen plenty of both in schools. Neither are in the long-term benefit of students.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I’d love to read your take on this issue. Should learning be hard? How do you know when easier learning or harder learning are appropriate — and effective? Please let us know in a comment below. I’m excited to see where this conversation goes.

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10 thoughts on “Should learning be hard?

  1. I’m reading “Make it Stick” right now so this is timely. I think that students struggling with something in a productive manner (not just struggling for the sake of struggle or because the teacher didn’t set up a learning situation intentionally) can really be beneficial. I think about simulations students have done that have left a lasting impression on them because they did have to struggle or concepts that we worked with in multiple ways because they were challenging. I remember struggling with concepts in advanced biology in high school as well but I think a large part of that was that our teacher didn’t necessarily try to help us learn it. The information was presented (lecture and textbook) and it was up to us to make sense out of it.

  2. I think that learning may be best when it’s just enough of a challenge, a stretch to reach it, and when it promises a practical reward beyond just a grade. I’m not always sure that school seems useful to students and they settle for getting it over with without realizing the potential value of the life skill of learning.

    • This is a good point, Eric. As a world languages teacher, there’s this concept called “i+1”. It suggests that the students’ proficiency level in the language is “i” and that we should give them listening and reading that is at “i+1” … just above their comprehension level. It seems like this is a good practice in any subject area. If we practice at “i”, where students are, we might not be pushing them forward. If we assume they should be at a much higher level and teach to where we think they should be, that may be at “i+452” instead of “i+1”. I’m glad you brought this up!

  3. I think the answer lies outside of this discussion entirely.
    The stories work because they provide context and they make it interesting. Why do you remember the point in the lecture or sermon where they speaker provided a joke? Because it was interesting and it provided context. My students laugh because I tell them stories about how limits are like parents who agree or disagree – they come at something from different perspectives, but they can still agree on bedtime for the kids or where they should go for vacation. But some of them can’t – so they fight, or they don’t talk and the limit doesn’t exist – the kids don’t know when bedtime is and they don’t get to go on vacation. It provides context and it makes it more interesting, so they are more engaged and they remember it more. It isn’t about easy or hard. I can make logs easy or hard any day I want. But – if you tell them that logs are “all about that base” they’ll laugh and sing and remember when and how to use them. It changes nothing about the work of using logarithms – it just make it more fun and helps them remember when to use them and what’s important about how to use them – the base. Personally I am looking to make them struggle a bit because in the struggling they build roots. The key is to struggle for the right things and in a reasonable amount. Too much struggle and they shut down, but the author of the study is right – some struggle gets you personally invested and that make you remember it more.
    My guess is that the baseball players cared about hitting the ball and you didn’t care about the Calvin Cycle. It wasn’t relevant or important, it was just on your list of things to do . . . The answer is context and interest. I had a college professor who wisely told our class that if you make it fun and interesting they will be more willing and you won’t have to force it. He was right!

  4. I am not a proponent of making learning hard, I use hand motions, numonic devices, songs, comparison/contrast, pictures, hands on manipulatives and labs, BUT learning is a verb, students must be involved and put forth some of their own effort to learn. There seems to be a trend in education where the general consensus is that all of the work is on the teachers part and the student liability is little or nothing. In addition, if the student plans on attending college they had better be used to working hard because I can guarantee that those college professors will make learning hard. They will not be playing games and having fun in class, they WILL be working HARD or they will fail. So many high school students drop out of college because they have not been taught how to work hard, they think it will be given to them. I know because I work with college professors in the summer and they ask me what is going on in high school, the students font know and cant do the fundamental things they need to do any more, so they are beginning to have a year of remedial courses in 4 year universities to combat this problem. Seems like it would be better to teach a work ethic earlier than pay for another year of college or get fired from a job.

  5. Some learning is skills-based: writing effectively, solving equations, analyzing. Like any skill, you begin slowly, acquire the fundamentals, then practice it into mastery. It’s in the post-fundamental practice that difficulty level produces results. If I’m training a drummer, I don’t give him music featuring the same set of rhythms for a whole year–appropriate variety helps cement it.

    But that isn’t “hard.” It’s challenging. It assumes the learner wants to get better. If he/she is hooked into the concept, the rest is fun for both teacher and student: finding challenging ways to deepen the skill.

    What’s “hard” is starting the skill at too high a level. The whole “zone of proximal development” discussion: keep learning at a level just above the student’s current level. Too low it’s boring. Too high it’s frustrating.

    For the kind of concept learning that isn’t skill based–like the Calvin Cycle example you gave–it all depends on the background knowledge of the learner and the skill of the teacher. He/she either presents it in such a way that it clicks with the learner or he/she develops discovery techniques that leads the learner to the concept (if there is enough time before the state tests!). But the difficulty level of those concepts are not really up to the teacher–the concept will have some inherent difficulty because of the nature of the concept, right?

    And the student’s background knowledge has to affect that. Causes of the Civil War? If you didn’t pay attention much to the hundred years before the War, you’re gonna struggle…and that is beyond the scope of a advantageous/disadvantageous discussion. That’s just bad!

    So in short–if a teacher can control the difficulty level of the lesson, she or he should in post-fundamental practice stages. And that’s a good thing. But sometimes the difficulty level just kind of “is what it is.”

    Make sense?

  6. From a purely ‘memory’ perspective, (rather than necessarily understanding content), there is lots of interesting stuff from world memory champions and the techniques they use to learn information. I actually went to school with Ed Cooke who is now in the top 10 memory champions of the world. He has done some TED talks and there is a TED talk about him (
    One of the central tenets of memorising is that you have to engage your brain into making something memorable (the hard work part), but that if you attach it to things that are already in your memory bank and you train, then it becomes easy.
    I think there is some hard work to do initially, but if you use a good technique to help you capture the memory and make it memorable, then learning (or at least memorisation) becomes easier.

  7. Great discussion! It’s something I’ve pondered over for quite a while and I think that with ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ learning, maybe we’re actually describing two types of learning and both are necessary. I love John Hattie’s research on surface learning and deep learning and generally, I’d put vocabulary learning under the ‘surface’ banner and the Calvin Cycle under the ‘deep’ banner because it’s a complex concept. With concepts it’s going to require deep learning to take place and that just doesn’t happen easily. However, the more students realise the purpose for learning those concepts and the more we facilitate complex concepts to have rich connections to their world, the more motivated they are likely to be to look into them and put effort into this kind of learning. I think sparking their curiosity about these things is probably our most difficult work – and most rewarding when that happens. When we spark curiosity, intrinsic motivation kicks in and students will put in the effort to understand.

  8. I recently attended a ceremony of transition from three years of classroom lectures to hands on “clinical” practice. The classroom years were notable (infamous) for tremendous (horrendous, really) amounts of memorization required to pass tests. This emphasis on memorization had deeply affected and nearly broken the spirit of my friend. At the beginning of this ceremony, THE DEAN of the school said something along the lines of “all that memorization you have done for the past three years will be forgotten. Today your learning begins.” (My gasp can be heard on the video I was making.) This 19th century methodology at a renowned university!
    Sure, learning needs to be challenging to stick, but it shouldn’t be numbing. I am an English as a Second Language teacher. My college-age international students and older students with graduate and professional degrees have memorization to do, but always in context and using their own learning styles – whether they know what those are. USE is the key word to learning anything, and it is fitting that the word is both noun and verb.
    Experience IS the best teacher, after all. People who have attended classes where the teachers have little or no”experience” in what is being taught know the difference. As a simple example, I don’t know the languages of most of the students in my class, but I have tried to use a foreign language to get something I needed.
    It looks easy when you watch someone cook on TV, or repair a broken whatever on YouTube, or read the directions for programming your remote. Without experience, however, it’s not that easy. I teach communication, basically, and “background knowledge” (experience) is key.

  9. I think this question needs to be defined differently.

    It’s abominable to me that anyone would make a lesson harder than it needs to be, and I don’t think that helps anyone (children or adult learners, students or teachers). There, I am in complete agreement with you. But, as others in this discussion have referred to, the knowledge needed to memorize vocabulary is very different from the skills needed to conjugate verbs or the ability to write poetry that moves the heart. In your freshman bio course was the teacher had you memorize a poem in a foreign language (the Calvin Cycle) without any context or knowledge of the language (it’s chemistry, not bio). That was either due to their inability to convey it or their negligence. They clearly felt it was ‘important’ but, it failed to take root. It was also easy to write into an exam and mark correct or not.

    The difficulty as I see it is that we want people to attain mastery, whether it is third grade phonics or advanced college biochemistry, but unpacking what you want students to ‘get’ is the beast. I think that is always at a higher Bloom’s level and often (but not always) more challenging. I’d bet most people on this page don’t value memorization or at least appreciate that in the age of cell phones that sort of learning is dying out. Most of the examples in this discussion that people mention have higher level cognition in them Your basic goal may be a definition of logs or the vocabulary of a story, but it seems to me that there is a lot of analysis and synthesis that is going on. The key is getting them to value the poetry of the Calvin cycle, not just memorization. That is, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, and design. It can be harder, to learn, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be harder to teach, but it doesn’t have to be. It does mean that fact-recall types of activities need to be removed from the learning arena. And that, I think, is one of the real stumbling blocks.