• Harder Is Better: "Cognitive Disfluency" Helps Students Learn

    by Janet Mizrahi
    Newsletter Editor

    It may sound counterintuitive, but students perform better if learning is more difficult.
    A well-established principle called "cognitive disfluency" is why.

    Teachers and students alike often judge a learning experience's success by the ease with which it is completed. But researchers publishing their findings in the journal Cognition have found that learning materials easily—or fluently—doesn't add up to learning material well. That principle is known as cognitive disfluency, or the notion that learning does not come easily.

    To test their theory, researchers began with two groups of Princeton students. One group read material they had to memorize in a recognizable font (Arial) using black ink. A second group was given the same material typed in a less identifiable and harder-to-read gray font (Comic Sans MS and Bodoni MT.) The results showed that the students who had to work harder to "encode" the new information retained it better, thus improving their long-term knowledge acquisition.

    Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons describe a separate experiment in their book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which illustrates how disfluency aids learning. In the experiment, students examined two pairs of sentences, one with a clear causal connection, and one that required the reader to make a logical inference:

    • "Joey's big brother punched him again and again. The next day his body was covered by bruises."
    • "Joey's crazy mother became furiously angry with him. The next day his body was covered with bruises."

    The extra thinking required to make sense of the second pair of sentences ends up leaving a more lasting impression on the reader. In other words, working harder to understand an idea leads to improved retention of that idea.

    For us instructors, the implications are complex. While we want our students to reach, we do not want the distance to be so far that they cannot cross the bridge. Psychologists call this conundrum "desirable difficulties," or just enough disfluency to attain deeper cognition but not so much that we turn our students off.

    Several techniques can aid this goal.

    1. Have students "translate" course material using alternative rhetorical modes. For example, ask students to create a tweet of 140 characters to explain a concept.
    2. Require students to argue an unfamiliar position. By forcing students to take an opposing viewpoint, they are forced to think in new ways.
    3. Ask students to locate errors. Identifying problems pushes students to look at a situation more carefully.

    Such shake-ups to business as usual just may help your students to learn better and deeper and to retain the material longer.

    Source: Lang, J. (2012, June 2.) Do your job better. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com.