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“The most fundamental goals of education are long-term goals. As teachers and educators, we want targeted knowledge and skills to be acquired in a way that makes them durable and flexible.” – R. Bjork
One of the more counterintuitive things about learning is that when we consider matters in the long term, the kinds of activities we do in the short term might not be as effective as we think. A ‘desirable difficulty’ refers to a learning task that may prove difficult initially but that leads to greater learning and mastery over an extended period of time. Independent learners are characteristically very good at embracing desirable difficulties and view the process of retrieval or having to generate information from memory as an effective method of consolidation.
The term was coined by Robert Bjork in 1994 when he made a helpful distinction between learning and performance. Performance is something that is easily measured through cues and engagement while learning is only something we can infer. Activities like cramming, re-reading material and highlighting information can give the impression of learning but these kinds of activities are often illusory as Bjork explains:
“Basically, current performance, which is something we can observe, is an unreliable index of learning, which we must infer. Massed practice on a task, for example, often leads to rapid gains in performance, but little or no effect on learning, as measured by long-term retention or transfer.”
In helping students to become independent learners who are able to access and use a broad range of knowledge in a wide range of contexts over a long period of time, there are a number of approaches supported by evidence that are useful but can often be met with initial resistance from the student who can feel that by being ‘busy’ they are learning something when in fact they may not be using their time as productively as they could be.
The importance of retrieval:
An effective way of students consolidating learning is to engage in retrieval strategies which require the student to search their long term memory for information as opposed to using their working memory to do ‘busy work.’ Reading over or highlighting material is not as ‘difficult’ a task as trying to retrieve it as the students feel engaged and the material is often already familiar them. This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall who writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.”
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this, as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.”
The Testing Effect:
The testing effect is a well established phenomenon that has been replicated many times in cognitive psychology. This process doesn’t have to be high stakes and actually works better when students get into a regular pattern of active recall through flashcards or self quizzing in an independent manner.
“Varying the context, examples, and problem type engages processes that can lead to a richer and more elaborated encoding of concepts and ideas, which can, in turn, support transfer of that learning to new settings.”
Many of these findings are somewhat counterintuitive when considered in terms of traditional methods of learning where typically students study a unit of material, say a half term and then are tested at the end of that unit.
Bjork’s research found that in the above model, no. 4 was actually the most effective method of retaining knowledge over a longer period of time. He suggests that engaging students in a process of ‘non-threatening’ retrieval through low stakes testing on a regular basis, and harnessing that process as part of covering the content is a far more effective way of consolidating learning.
“difficult but successful retrievals are better for memory than easier successful retrievals”
So having students generate answers rather than just re-read or highlight material, having them regularly engage in self-quizzing through the use of flashcards or multiple choice questions and ultimately have them step into the liminal space of ‘desirable difficulties’ means they will be far better prepared to remember and transfer knowledge in classroom discussions, presentations and formal exams.
– What does the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ look like in your subject?
– what are the barriers to students embracing difficulty and challenge?
- What Is the Testing Effect, and How Does It Affect Learning, Knowledge, and Retention?
- How Tests Make Us Smarter
- Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder
- Test-enhanced learning: Using retrieval practice to help students learn
- Remembering, Forgetting, and Desirable Difficulties
- Bjork, Robert ‘Desirable Difficulties Perspective on Learning’ https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/07/RBjork_inpress.pdf
- Pyc, Mary A.; Rawson, Katherine A. (May 2009). “Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory?” (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language. 60 (4): 437–447. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004.
- Roediger, H. and Karpicke, J. (2006) ‘The Power of Testing Memory, Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice’, Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume 1—Number 3
- Nutshell, Graham ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007, p.24)
This document is the culmination of a series of discussions with pupils, HODS and SLT and provides a roadmap for the broader enterprise of independent learning.
The College is committed to the wider concept of developing independence: independent thinking, learning and coping. All of these three are inter-related, and are developed holistically through the wider school experience, through pastoral care, tutoring, co-curricular interaction and parental approach. Everything that is written here about learning should also be applied to thinking and coping.
Some useful starting points:
- Independent learning can be thought of as “the ability to take charge of one’s learning” – Holec (1981)
- Independent Learning should be seen as an desired end but perhaps not the best means to that end.
- Independent learning is rooted in effective questioning and dialogue. (Coaching is a core driver here)
- The ability to make informed choices and to take responsibility for your own learning activities with planning, support and guidance from teachers.
- It represents a shift in responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. This has to be gradual with scaffolding in place and a flexible path to independent learning with it embedded in all schemes of work.
- It should encourage the following characteristics: curiosity, passion, inspiration, discernment, self-motivation, self-examination, accountability, critical thinking and persistence.
- It should develop the ability of the pupil to know when they need support.
- To that end, strong and productive teacher-pupil relationships are key.
- Metacognition is a key element of independent learning. Students should develop the capacity to learn how to learn.
- Independent learners are able to transfer knowledge across a wide range of contexts and to that end memory and retrieval are key components in this process.
- Independent learners have strong ‘affective skills’ which refers to the ability to manage feelings – the most important of which is the ability to delay gratification.
- Independent Learners have a strong sense of purpose.
Purpose is what keeps us going. Paul Dolan tells us in Happiness by Design that we need purpose as well as pleasure to feel fulfilled. But if we’re only interested in short-term goals like passing exams, what happens when the goal is achieved? Teaching students who seem only motivated by threats and rewards and give every appearance of hating everything to do with school can be a joyless exercise. Teaching students whose purpose is to learn for its own sake is an altogether different proposition. They listen attentively, work conscientiously and strive to relate new concepts and information to what they already know. Having a purpose gives us the desire to master tricky content just because it’s there. (Didau, Rose 2016)
What is not meant by independent learning?
- It does not mean working on your own without any supervision or guidance on long term projects.
- It does not mean less teacher guidance but rather specific guidance with the end goal of student independence.
- It does not mean a rigidly predetermined path to instant independent learning for all and at all times.
- It does not mean students using technology without a clear sense of focus and direction.
“Teacher instruction is vitally necessary to become an independent learner.” (Christodoulou, 2014)
What are the benefits of independent learning?
- It is a skill that is highly valued at university and in the workplace and is vital in life preparation. Whilst the world will change, this skill and associated benefits will remain invaluable.
- It will enable students to feel in control of their academic studies, hence reducing stress, increasing wellbeing, and leading to improved academic performance.
- It will enhance student organisation and the ability to set tangible goals.
- It will increase student motivation and confidence.
- It will enable teachers to provide differentiated tasks.
- It is consistent with our philosophy on coaching.
- It will develop resilience for academic purposes and beyond.
- It will ultimately have a positive impact on end performance in particular in the 6th Form.
What will make independent learning successful?
- Students must develop the necessary organisational skills to work towards independence.
- Students must develop the necessary motivation and confidence to thrive in an independent learning culture.
- Students will learn how to collaborate effectively in a meaningful way.
- Teachers have subject passion and drive to lead the learning, and model independence and intellectual curiosity.
- There is a critical balance for teachers to establish between using subject specific expertise, and challenging students through effective and powerful questioning and dialogue.
- Positive relationships between teachers and students that are based on trust and a mutual responsibility for learning.
- Marking is not the same as feedback. The quality of feedback is fundamental to the success of independent learning.
- Students will need to learn cognitive and metacognitive skills.
- Teachers will all need to develop the ability to ask the right questions to elicit independent thinking.
Independent Learner characteristics:
- Independent learners are firstly well organized with a clear sense of success criteria for each subject unit.
- Independent learners have a positive relationship with their teachers and tutors and ask for help and guidance when needed.
- Independent learners have developed a robust set of digital skills to enable them to use technology and navigate the Internet in a discerning and critical manner.
- Independent learners focus less on poor revision techniques such as the storage of information (re-reading/highlighting) and more on the generation of questions and answers themselves through self-quizzing/regular low stakes testing.
- Independent learners are able to evaluate exemplar material from their peers or from the exam board to reflect and improve on their own work.
- Independent learners have a sense of agency over their future. They have strong self-regulation and metacognitive skills and are deeply reflective about their individual strengths and weaknesses.
- Independent learners have an intellectual curiosity bolstered by a wide range of extra-curricular activities.
- Independent learners have a well-developed capacity for intrinsic questioning as opposed to extrinsic questioning.
- Independent learners are empowered, unstressed, and in control.
Further discussion: Independent Learning Pathway
Independent Learning is a desired end but perhaps not the best means to that end. What might independent learning look like at different stages of pupil development?
What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology (Didau, Rose 2016)
Seven Myths About Education (Christodolou, 2014)