Desirable Difficulties

I promised that I would correct my previous retrieval attempts to list Bob Bjork’s desirable difficulties. I have made my bed and had some dinner so I feel I have ‘interleaved’ enough to write this blog post 😉


Bjork and Bjork (2011) call this Generation effects. Trying to generate an answer (or retrieve an answer) without looking it up. Testing is seen as extremely beneficial for learning rather than re-studying as allows you to apply the retrieval strategy and identify what has been understood or not. Bjork and Bjork (2011) put it in the following way:

Basically, any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity (p.61)



In addition to my summary of spacing, Bjork and Bjork (2011) add that spacing also improves the transfer of learning as it allows you to build on existing knowledge to enhance new learning.


I struggled with this one as it closely related to spacing. Bjork and Bjork (2011) state that interleaving is a good way to space different topics or tasks. Interleaving will also improve retrieval learning and transfer of learning. Interleaving is the opposite of blocking (mass learning) – which is what I said under spacing.

Varying the conditions of practice

I missed the target on this one. What Bjork and Bjork (2011) mean is that if learning always occurs in the same setting, the learning becomes contextualised to that setting. They suggest changing the settings (eg study at work, home, different room, socially, online/offline). I had this listed under interleaving.

Designing courses

As I was learning about these strategies, I noted down ways to incorporate these into the courses I help design as well as my own learning:

 ‘Test yourself’ – retrieval strategies

  • summarise from memory
  • debate course material
  • describe examples (on discussion boards, blogs etc)
  • apply what you have learnt to everyday life
  • test understanding using quizzes (student or teacher generated)
  • fill in the blanks (created by another student)
  • flash cards
  • reproduce outline of a chapter
  • students asking each other questions about content
  • others? …


  • segmenting content and activities
  • self-pacing
  • time planners (weekly estimates)
  • shorter content and activities
  • weekly quizzes


  • previous topics in new topics
  • separate topics or tasks

Varying the conditions of practice

  • novel ways to present/generate information
  • encourage students to study in different locations
  • opportunities for practice at work, life
  • learning outside the classroom/learning management system

Up next…

Were desirable difficulties used in the Think101 course?


Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. (2011). Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning. In Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society (pp. 56–64). Retrieved from

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