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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Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

 DateEvent / Event DetailsCity / More Info
+ 01/05/2018
Taylorville CUSDTaylorville, IL
+ 01/08/2018
Princeville CUSDPrinceville, IL
+ 01/26/2018
Erie 1 BOCESWest Seneca, NY
+ 01/29/2018
Jackson R-2 School DistrictJackson, MO
+ 02/02/2018
California League of Schools (DBC)Monterey, CA
+ 02/07/2018
Ditch That Homework Workshop (Region 8 ESC)Fort Wayne, IN
 Venue:The Summit
1025 W. Rudisill Blvd.
Fort Wayne, IN 46807
Public Event
+ 02/08/2018
Ditch That Homework WorkshopMishawaka, IN
 Venue:Northern Indiana Educational Service Center (NIESC)
56535 Magnetic Drive
Mishawaka, IN 46545
Public Event
+ 03/07/2018
Delaware Association of School Admin2 Skype Presos
+ 03/16/2018
Lake Shore Central SchoolAngola, NY
+ 06/21/2018
The Suite Life ConferenceWashington, IN
+ 08/09/2018
St. Joseph Grade SchoolSouth Bend, IN
+ 08/15/2018
St. Anthony de Padua Catholic SchoolSouth Bend, IN