Desired difficulties

Harnessing Desired Difficulties: A Guide for University Students
By Kristofer Espinosa


The theory of "Desirable Difficulties," developed by psychologists Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork, proposes that certain obstacles in the learning process can enhance long-term retention and understanding. It's a crucial concept for university students striving for academic success, as it emphasizes the benefit of engaging deeply with material, rather than seeking easy paths.

What are Desired Difficulties?

Desirable difficulties are beneficial challenges introduced into the learning process to stimulate more robust cognitive engagement. By tackling these challenges, learners enhance their problem-solving abilities, critical thinking, and memory strength. Examples of desirable difficulties include:

  1. Spacing

    Spacing refers to distributing your learning over time instead of cramming sessions. It helps in strengthening memory and promotes effective learning.

  2. Interleaving

    Instead of focusing on a single topic, interleaving encourages studying different topics or problem types in one session. It enhances your ability to differentiate between problem types and select appropriate strategies.

  3. Testing

    Regular testing, beyond formal exams, enhances recall and self-assessment skills.

  4. Variability

    : Practicing skills in varied contexts or using different methods reinforces your ability to adapt and apply these skills in new situations.

  5. Complexity

    Encountering complex material early stimulates a deeper understanding and encourages proactive learning.

Desired Difficulties for University Students

As a university student, understanding and applying the principle of desirable difficulties can transform your learning approach.

  1. Plan Your Studies

    Use a spaced learning approach, breaking your study time into manageable chunks over several days or weeks instead of one marathon session.

  2. Mix It Up

    Rather than studying one subject for a long period, try interleaving. Switch between subjects or topics during your study session.

  3. Self-Testing

    Implement regular self-testing to enhance your recall and consolidate your understanding.

  4. Embrace Complexity

    Don't shy away from complex topics early on. Tackling them can enhance your understanding and problem-solving skills.

  5. Explore Variability

    Try solving problems using different methods or apply your learning in various contexts. It fosters flexibility and creativity.


Desirable difficulties can initially seem counterintuitive, but they are a powerful learning strategy. They stimulate cognitive engagement, enhance memory, and foster a deeper understanding of the material. As a university student, embracing desirable difficulties can lead not just to better grades, but a more enriching learning experience. Remember, the goal isn't to make learning harder, but to make your learning more effective.

The concept of difficulties in learning is nuanced and can be divided into two categories: desirable difficulties and undesirable difficulties. Both can affect the learning process in different ways.

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