The Toolset: Desirably Difficult Learning Strategies

Many learners come into the learning situation with the assumption that "learning should feel easy." What research from cognitive psychology demonstrates, however, is that the effective learning strategies that make learning stick are often the ones that introduce difficulties. That is, effective strategies engage learners more effortful and elaborately, and may introduce more experiences of failure early on during learning. For the very same reasons why these strategies are effective (they are active and challenging), however, learners often just them to be ineffective (they feel hard).

Of course, not all difficulties are desirable (studying in a language you do not understand would be pointless), but empirical evidence, rather than intuition, is necessary to understand what strategies actually enhance learning.

Overview Chapters:

  • Yan, V. X., Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). Memory and metamemory considerations in the instruction of human beings revisited: Implications for optimizing online learning. J. C. Horvath, J. Lodge, & J. A. C. Hattie (Eds). From the Laboratory to the Classroom: Translating the Learning Sciences for Teachers. pp 61-78. [PDF]
  • Bjork, R. A. & Yan, V. X. (2014). The increasing importance of learning how to learn. In McDaniel, M.A., Frey, R.F., Fitzpatrick, S.M., and Roediger, H.L., III(Eds). (2014). Integrating Cognitive Science with Innovative Teaching in STEM Disciplines. Saint Louis, Missouri: Washington University in St. Louis Libraries. [PDF]

Interleaving and Spacing:

  • Yan, V. X., Soderstrom, N. C., Seneviratna, G. S., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (in press). How should exemplars be sequenced in inductive learning? Empirical evidence versus learners' opinions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied [PDF]
  • Sana, F., Yan, V. X., & Kim, J. A. (2017). Study sequence matters for the inductive learning of cognitive concepts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109, 84-98. [PDF]
  • Yan, V. X., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). On the difficulty of mending metacognitive illusions: A priori theories, fluency effects, and misattributions of the interleaving benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 918-933. [PDF]
  • Noh, S. M., Yan, V. X., Bjork, R. A., & Maddox, W. T. (2016). Optimal sequencing during category learning: Testing a dual-learning systems perspective. Cognition, 155, 23-29. [PDF]
  • Yan, V. (2014). Learning concepts and categories from examples: How learners' beliefs match and mismatch the empirical evidence. (Order No. 3623080, University of California, Los Angeles). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 128. Retrieved from (1548302027). [PDF]
  • Cohen, M. S., Yan, V. X., Halamish, V., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Do students think that difficult or valuable materials should be restudied sooner, rather than later? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 39, 1682-96. [PDF]

Posters (i.e., presented at conferences, but not yet peer-reviewed)

  • Why does Interleaving the Exemplars of To-be-learned Categories Enhance Concept Learning? Testing the Discriminative-contrast Hypothesis. [Psychonomics 2015 Poster
  • Learning Artists' Styles and Non-Parametric Statistics From Exemplars: Within- and Between-Category Similarity as a Moderator of Schedule Efficiency [Psychonomics 2014 Poster]
  • Learning Better, Learning More: The Benefits of Expanding Retrieval Practice [Psychonomics 2013 Poster]
  • Does Auditory Inductive Learning Benefit from Blocking or Interleaving Category Exemplars? [Psychonomics 2012 Poster]

Value of Errors:

  • Yan, V. X., Yu, Y., Garcia, M. A., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Why does trying, and failing, to predict to-be-learned responses enhance later recall of those responses? Memory & Cognition, 42, 1373-1383. [PDF]

Posters (i.e., presented at conferences, but not yet peer-reviewed)

The Mindset: Interpretations of Difficulty

The rub of "desirable difficulties" is that many learners rely on a sense of ease (i.e., fluency) when it comes to judging their learning progress and judging what learning strategies should be used. Learners think to themselves, 'If the content feels easy, I must know it,' and 'If the learning strategy feels easy, it must be working.' We now know, however, that just because something makes learning feel easy, it doesn't mean that we are learning effectively or efficiently.

When we experience difficulties in the course of learning, how do we interpret this experience? Do we think to ourselves, "this is hard, it's impossible for me" and give up? Or do we think, "this is difficult, but important" and keep going? Which lens we take on to interpret the experience of difficulty can vary depending on the features of the immediate context. Drawing from social psychology, a second part of my research involves understanding how identities and mindsets can be leveraged to encourage the motivation to start studying and persist in the face of challenge.

What do learners believe?

  • Yan, V. X., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). On the difficulty of mending metacognitive illusions: A priori theories, fluency effects, and misattributions of the interleaving benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 918-933. [PDF]
  • Yan, V. X., Thai, K. P., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Habits and beliefs that guide self-regulated learning: Do they vary with mindsets? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 140-152. [PDF]

Posters (i.e., presented at conferences, but not yet peer-reviewed)

Culture, Identity, and Metacognition

  • Oyserman, D., Lewis, N. A., Yan, V. X., Fisher, O., O’Donnell, S. C., & Horowitz, E. (in press). An identity-based motivation framework for self-regulation. Psychological Inquiry. DOI: 10.1080/1047840X.2017.1337406 [PDF]
  • Yan, V. X., & Oyserman, D. (in press). The culture-identity-metacognition interface. J. Proust & M. Fortier (Eds). Metacognitive Diversity: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Oxford University Press. [PDF]

Other Research

  • Noh, S. M., Yan, V. X., Vendetti, M. S., Castel, A. D., & Bjork, R. A. (2014). Multi-level induction of categories: Venomous snakes capture the level of induction and hijack the learning of lower levels. Psychological Science, 25, 1592-1599. [PDF]
  • Murayama, K., Sakaki, M., & Yan, V. X., Smith. G. (2014). Type-1 error inflation in the traditional by-participant analysis to metamemory accuracy: A generalized mixed-effects model perspective. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 40, 1287-1306. [PDF]