“Desirable Difficulties”, Part 2 (or a retroactive Part 1?)


Not much to add from yesterday’s post, except to point you toward another great discussion of the pedagogical opportunities provided by “desirable difficulties.” This time, David Gooblar, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (and an instructor at Augustana College, yesssss!) provides some additional details for the kinds of moves you can make to provide opportunities for students to develop their storage memory for deeper learning. So, if you haven’t read Maryellen Weimer’s piece on desirable difficulties that I reblogged yesterday, great!  Read this one first, and then check out how Weimer recommends approaches to approaching student buy-in for a teaching approach that causes students to struggle (productively) on purpose.



September 10, 2014

Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives or share more teaching tips in our new group.

Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.

It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.

When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.

The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”–learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.

All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.

I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology:

Continue reading

“Desirable difficulties?” Try telling that to students…

"This teacher is getting on my last nerve..."
"This teacher is getting on my last nerve..."

In the John Hughes ’80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we see why Ferris ditches school: his history teacher (played with deadpan brilliance by Ben Stein) stymies, bores and infuriates a classroom full of students through a mind-numbingly repetitive and monotone lecture, punctuated with the worst attempts at coaxing student involvement ever.  Ironically, we know that students in the early stages of their college education actually prefer to receive information passively, served up by teachers with expertise. This is largely due to their less-developed stage of learning, and increasingly aggravated by public high school teaching that is designed to move through required content quickly and efficiently. However, to move students to higher orders of thinking and learning — application, critical analysis, creative synthesis — we need to get them to take more ownership of their learning process. Which is hard — especially when students are first faced with this demand in areas of study new to them.

As you might be aware, the benefits of student struggle in the learning process has a sound basis in cognitive psychology. Robert Bjork of UCLA, who studies processes of learning and forgetting, distinguishes between “retrieval memory,” or the easy, immediate accessibility of information, and “storage memory,” or the longer-term ability to retain and recall information. Since the latter is the product of deeper learning, the objective becomes facilitating learning that boosts storage strength as well as retrieval strength. Bjork’s research developed the concept of “desirable difficulties,” beneficial struggles in the learning process that can result in deeper learning.

For instance, pedagogical moves such as frequent quizzes and tests, active problem-solving, and varying the locations where learning takes place are examples of desirable difficulties that prior research links to effective learning.

Of course, as the video statement from Bjork above points out (did you skip it??? go ahead, watch it… I’ll wait…), there is a bit of a dilemma here: students enjoy a rapid, easy improvement in performance (due to the triggering of retrieval memory), but the slower, more troublesome learning process that actually leads to optimal learning can be frustrating to students.

The Teaching Professor Blog‘s Maryellen Weimer discusses how we might respond to this dilemma: how do we help students get beyond “teach me, and make it easy!” to accept the desirable difficulties of student-driven learning? In brief, the way we frame these experiences for students is key to their success.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2014

“She Didn’t Teach. We Had to Learn it Ourselves.”

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”

Continue reading

The four-question path to critical thinking. Really? Really!


Thinking is hard — just ask Christopher Robin’s friend, who observes that even valiant efforts at problem solving can suffer from underdeveloped critical thinking skills:

Even harder is to figure out approaches to engage students in critical thinking — a central goal embraced, at least philosophically, by most all college and university teachers — in ways that can actually lead to observable outcome gains.  It’s a tricky business.  The VALUE rubric developed by AAC&U for assessing student development in critical thinking defines it as  “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” The rubric is a useful tool, largely because it lays out stages of critical thinking development from initial benchmark to capstone in a variety of important areas: explanation of issues, use of evidence, considering assumptions and contents, establishing a position, drawing conclusions.

So we’ve got some guidance on assessing what students do… but how can we provide them explicit practice in doing it, in ways applicable to a broad range of learning contexts?

Coming to our rescue again,  from the Teaching Professor Blog shares what appears to be a too-simple pattern of four question prompts that guide students through four important paths to critical thinking: analysis of concepts, reflection on the relevance of concepts, application of concepts to other situations, and continued questioning about concepts.  The four-question plan comes from Dietz-Uhler and Lanter (2009), whose SOTL research on the use of this question set revealed significant effects on student performance!

So you don’t have to bruise the side of your head like poor little Pooh to think of ways to get your students to think. When in a pinch, just take them down the four-question path!  And stop for some hunny on the way, silly old bear.


AUGUST 28, 2013

Prompts That Get Students to Analyze, Reflect, Relate, and Question

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

A simple teaching technique that helps students learn; now there’s something few teachers would pass up! This particular technique involves a four-question set that gets students actively responding to the material they are studying. They analyze, reflect, relate, and question via these four prompts:

Continue reading

Want to encourage participation? Give ‘em a mulligan!


Sometimes, in order to reap the greatest rewards, we need to take a risk. Of course, the problem is that risks are risky, and the prospect of failure looms, which we usually don’t perceive as rewarding. If only we had the opportunity for a do-over…

[Check out this short film when you have some time... it's charming.]

Our students are frequently faced with the opportunity for productive risk — particularly when it comes to in-class discussion. We know that active engagement in the classroom is positively associated with learning gains (Tinto, 1997), and in-class participation is an important component of student engagement (Handelsman et al.,  2005).  For the Millennial students currently in our classrooms, class discussions can be a powerful way to leverage some of their generational traits for learning (e.g., their desire for an active learning environment and their egalitarian belief that all voices should be heard); however, other traits (e.g., their sensitivity to criticism) can make them risk-averse when it comes to the prospect of ‘being wrong’ in the classroom (Roehling et al., 2011).

Our Millennials also crave achievement and can be consumer-oriented when it comes to the cost-benefit analysis of their personal efforts in the learning department. That’s where the innovative advice of Jefferson College’s Lisa Pavia-Higel, recently published in Faculty Focus, comes in.  She suggests that we can stimulate student participation in class discussions by leveraging the current wave of “gamification” of the learning experience (i.e., strategies that “focus[] on what games do for brain processes and tr[y] to bring that into the learning environment”).  In brief: offering “mulligan” credits to apply in subsequent exams can both incentivize active class participation and reduce student test anxiety at the same time.

This strategy, an alternative approach to both “participation grades” and “extra credit,” has the tantalizing possibility of encouraging otherwise risk-averse students to put themselves out there in the classroom, where we want them to engage.  It also fosters the active and welcoming environment for participation Millennials crave.

So… consider going out and buying some stickers???

Handelsman, M.M., Briggs, W.L., Sullivan, N., and Towler, A. (2005). A measure of college student course engagement. The Journal of Education Research, 98(3), 184-192.

Roehling, P.V., Vander Kooi, T.L., Dykema, S., Quisenberry, B, and  Vandlen, C. (2011). Engaging the millennial generation in class discussions. College Teaching, 59, 1-6.

Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistenceJournal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.


AUGUST 18, 2014

Using “Mulligans” to Enhance Student Participation and Reduce Test Anxiety

By: in Teaching and Learning

When I speak with other professors who work extensively in the classroom, we often find that we share many of the same challenges. Students’ lack of classroom participation in discussion and test anxiety are two of the most common. Many professors try to mitigate these issues through two time-honored pedagogical tactics: a participation grade and extra credit questions on tests. While both tactics can be effective, by applying concepts from gamification research I found a way to both enhance classroom participation and reduce test anxiety with one simple technique.

Continue reading

“Once in a Lifetime”: Starting your first tenure-track job

"Same as it ever was?" Not even close, pal.
"Same as it ever was?" Not even close, pal.

I just saw that a new advice essay on starting a new tenure-track job invoked the timeless wisdom of Talking Heads, and I thought, “perfect!”

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself yourself
My God!…What have I done?!

Across the country, and in your home institutions, newly-minted Ph.D.s are starting a strange new journey in brave new worlds… and it can seem rather surreal. (By the way, did you know there is an upcoming free webinar on coping with the “impostor syndrome”?) All of us that were once in that position recall your swirling mix of conflicting feelings — exhilaration, caution, bravado, fear, enthusiasm, terror… keep going…

There was a great piece in the Chronicle four years ago with highly advisable advice for new tenure-track faculty… if you’re starting a new job this year, you should read this. Right now.  But for today I’m sharing a thoughtful and useful piece by four junior psychology faculty in a range of different institutions, providing advice to first-year tenure-track faculty after just completing their own. It’s worth checking out (and sharing with new colleagues, if they don’t yet subscribe to this blog!), because the position of the first-year tenure-track faculty member is certainly not the same as it ever was.

And besides — the authors are down with David Byrne. They must be wise.


Once in a Lifetime

A tenure-track job is finally yours. Now how do you make it through the first year?

Careers- First Year Tenured Track

Creative Commons

We were in precisely that position last fall as we began our first years as assistant professors of psychology. Like diligent young scholars, we had read books and articles about how to succeed in academe and they had helped us map out some goals. But they were less helpful when it came to some of the day-to-day challenges, especially those that seemed unique to our departments and institutions.

All sorts of unexpected questions kept popping up all year, things like:

  • “The class test scores were awful; what do I do?”
  • “I ordered something a month ago; should I follow up with a staff member, or am I being too impatient?”
  • “Should I bother my chair about something that might be insignificant?”

Our reading didn’t provide clear answers to those questions, so we started asking each other. We are four friends who, after earning Ph.D.’s in psychology at the University of Virginia in 2013, accepted positions at institutions that vary widely in size, mission, and student population. As we moved into our assistant professorships, we organized weekly video chats to compare notes, share our triumphs, and troubleshoot our challenges. At the end of our first year, we realized that our experiences might be useful for faculty just starting out at other institutions. So here are our for-what-it’s-worth insights.

Continue reading

Leave the poop deck unswabbed, matey… just write!


The beginning of the academic year is always a crazybusy time. If you work at a teaching-intensive institution, the start of the year often feels like a time of mournful separation — with the end of summer comes the end of our scholarship productivity for the year. That’s because finding time during the term to get any writing done can feel like Popeye trying to get Poopdeck Pappy to sleep when he’d rather go out and start a bar fight.

The problem with “finding time” to write is that the enterprise is often impossible — there are always other things to fill our time. However, Joli Jensen from the University of Tulsa, a writing columnist for Vitae, reminds us that while the decks will never be sufficiently swabbed, we can still proceed to sail the scholar-ship (see what I did there?) with a little shifting of perspective and the application of a few easily implemented productivity tips (which she writes about in a separate piece that I recommend highly).

So put away the mop and weigh anchor, matey!  Arrrrr!!!



Image: Richard Dorgan, from ‘Biltmore Oswald’ (Project Gutenberg E-Book)

August 29, 2014


One of the most widespread myths in academic writing is that you can, and should, try to “clear the decks”—that is, finish all of your other obligations before you can focus on your scholarship.

In a recent faculty workshop on “stalled projects,” six colleagues committed to try, for two weeks, a few of the writing approaches I’ve been recommending. No pressure, I told them. This wasn’t a permanent commitment. It was just a way to explore why these projects weren’t moving forward.

The day before our second meeting, one colleague emailed to say that she couldn’t start using the techniques because she was overwhelmed. There was just too much going on, it wasn’t an opportune time for writing, and now grading had to take precedence. She couldn’t make the meeting, and she would be out of town the following week, but hoped she could continue with the group once things settled down.

Obviously the “cleared decks” delusion had her in its grip. Even though she said she wanted to reconnect with her project, had been confident she could find 10 minutes a day to write, and had had a week free of teaching, she still hadn’t been able to get started. We had discussed specific ways for her to make better use of her time, such as doing scholarly writing before her grading. In spite of those suggestions, she still felt obligated to put her research project on hold until “things cleared up.”

The other members of the writing group understood, of course, but this time they had been able to make different choices. They, too, felt overwhelmed by other obligations. They, too, felt that this wasn’t the best time to be writing, and were tempted, each day, to put off even their brief 10-minute commitment. But somehow they were still able to try at least some of the techniques. And once they experienced even a little progress, they felt better about the project, and about themselves, and were eager to keep going. They were no longer stalled.

The reality is: Things never clear up. They don’t even reliably settle down. Your in box is always full. The decks are always crowded.  There is always more going on than you want or expect. Nonetheless, you can find ways to put your writing first, and make sure that it gets done. Otherwise, everything but your writing will get done.

Continue reading

Feel like an impostor? This free webinar is for you!


It’s inevitable… at one point or another we’ve all felt it…









At a certain point, the Daily Affirmation of Stuart Smalley just doesn’t cut it.

Thankfully, the folks at Academic Coaching and Writing are offering a free webinar in September on just this pervasive malady:


Managing the Impostor Syndrome in Academia: How to Overcome Self-Doubt

Do you ever feel like you are an academic “impostor,” living with the dread that you will someday be discovered to be a fraud? Do you feel that you are not really seen for all your strengths and capabilities? Key to academic success is your ability to present yourself in a compelling manner. Howevcr, many academics are inhibited by negative self-talk that undermines the way they present their competencies. This webinar will help you to step back and assess how you present your academic capabilities and how you manage others’ impressions of your abilities.

This webinar will present some research on faculty productivity and guide you through coaching exercises to help you:

  • Understand your role in the performance of being an academic
  • Identify the three components of “Academic Presence:”
    • Recognize how academic culture may lead to negative self-talk
    • Increase self-awareness of how negative thoughts sabotage your performance
    • Step into your strengths and manifest your Academic Presence

Join Moira Killoran for this webinar September 25, 2014 at:

  • 1 p.m. PDT
  • 2 p.m. MDT
  • 3 p.m. CDT
  • 4 p.m. EDT

About the Presenter

Moira Killoran, ACW Director of Academic Coaching, is a professionally certified coach with experience in leadership, academic career and dissertation coaching, as well as in qualitative research consulting. As a consultant, she has worked extensively with faculty members, university administrators, and graduate students, assisting them to complete manuscripts, dissertations, and grant proposals. She also has worked with academics to transition out of academia and into new industries. She has been principal investigator (PI) or co-PI for a variety of studies, and has been funded by the NIH, DOD, and SSRC. Moira’s publications focus on gender and identity construction, organizational culture, substance use, and doctor-patient communication. Her faculty appointments have included positions at George Washington University and Whittier College. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from The University of Texas at Austin, and has post-doctoral training from the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco in medical anthropology.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 113 other followers