It has been a busy week, punctuated by three fantastic professional experiences, keeping me motivated. The first, an uplifting conversation with Dr Suzanne Culshaw @SuzanneCulshaw about teacher training and how RememberMore might be able to help teachers in training. The second a sequence of memorial lessons with my Year 7 English class around ballads, post here. Both serendipitously linked with motivation.
Third, I met and discussed the implications of “desirable difficulties,” cognition and motivation with Bridgid Finn @bridgidfinn.
Bridgid Finn is currently Senior Research Scientist, ETS (the world’s largest private educational testing and measurement organization), I would regularly bump into her early publications (2008, 2011-13) when reading around the topic of retrieval practice and the hypercorrection effect. Most recently I stumbled upon her more recent work focusing on metacognition and motivation before finally encountering Bjork and Bjork’s (2020) reference to her work.
I am very grateful to Bridgid, for her receptiveness and her professional generosity in which she helped better understand the interactions between motivation and cognition. A conversation that led to an email recommending two research papers.
Where is started
It started with “Desirable Difficulties in Theory and Practice.” Bjork and Bjork (2020) made reference to Finn’s work and I fell into the research rabbit hole, not for the first time.
Finn (2020) provides a convincing case that bringing desirable difficulties into the real world of education requires addressing the motivational factors she sketches in her essay. The two of us have actually been quite guilty of ignoring such factors, the importance of which comes through, if less explicitly, in some of the other articles in this forum as well. If one’s goal is to have students replace less-effective learning activities—activities that may have become habitual and may even have been encouraged by teachers—with more effective activities, the issues of motivation mentioned in Finn’s essay must be addressed.Bjork and Bjork (2020)
They go on to say:
Among other important observations, Finn points out that students’ memories of their past academic experiences—and achievements, or lack thereof—provide a basis for their expectations and goals. Such expectations and goals, in turn, can heavily influence both students’ effort to learn and their selection of learning procedures. From that standpoint, as she argues, research of achievement motivation and on judgment and decision making becomes highly relevant.Bjork and Bjork (2020)
…there is important research to be carried out on how motivational factors influence and interact with learning strategies.Bjork and Bjork (2020)
It is hard to disagree with the Bjorks. And I certainly do not disagree. However, I have been wrestling with the concept of “desirable difficulties” and the importance of experiencing success (or fail rates) for quite some time. Not because I disagree with the proposition of “desirable difficulties” but because I have experienced first and second hand, that what is “desirably difficult” is so hugely variable (@overpractised helped that thought surface).
First hand: I am motivated to tackle a recommended research paper and write up my understanding of it. The task-related value is high, expectancy of success is moderately high, and I am willing to burden the cost. Compare that to generic staff PD sessions. The task-related value is too often low, expectancy of success is expected, and I ave no choice but to bear the cost, all the time thinking I could be doing something far more, personally and professionally valuable.
Second hand: At the chalkface, introducing successive relearning to low prior attaining classes as compared to Alternative Provision classes (AP), is distinctly different. In fact, successive relearning was almost disregarded out of hand by pupils in Alternative Provision until they have experienced the benefits personally. (Anecdotally, as reported from three different schools, it has been the low academic-confidence learners that have benefitted the most from successive relearning).
For both groups the task-related value is modest, even though expectancy of success was almost assured. What of the cost? Successive relearning is effortful. Hence, as their teacher, I had to work hard.
More recently, introducing successive relearning to mixed ability classes at a small independent school, pupils thrived, committing even more minutes of personalised relearning than requested. Task-related value, gathering knowledge, was highly prized, they thrived on the reinforcement of their broadening knowledge, their success. What of the cost? It was enthusiastically endured, embraced, in exchange for knowing more.
These three cases would suggest there is more at play than merely “convincing learners to introduce desirable difficulties is a major challenge,” Bjork and Bjork (2020). That was the thrust of my opening email exchange with Bridgid. My frustration with “desirable difficulties” laid bare.
Time to call upon the lead husky
So I wrote to Bridgid and asked for help.
I am in the process of trying to decipher the desirable difficulties versus the need for success / motivation conundrum. Separating the “acquisition of learning” and the need to experience success in relearning – I am intrigued by Pekrun’s work and the potential reciprocal relationship between motivation and achievement… I often find myself teaching low prior attaining students and I am confident that in this context, success and motivation is reciprocal, at the very least.Email – 26 Dec. 2021
To which Bridgid replied with access to her 2020 paper and an ongoing conversation.
Seeing value in the investment of time, I read the paper, and replied with more questions and so the conversation stepped up a gear.
You are absolutely right that there needs to be a better link made between motivation and cognition. The cognitive research often doesn’t consider individual differences- i.e., performance/achievement differences and how those factors (among others) shape motivated choices about learning.Bridgid Finn – 3 Jan 2022
Not to bombard you with email snippets, here are the main takeaways from Finn (2020) and a series of emails.
- memories of prior academic experiences influence student motivation
- prior academic experiences serve as the basis for task specific expectancies and values
- pupils rarely buy-into retrieval practice unless they experience the benefits first hand. See McDaniel et al (2021)
- the paper introduced The expectancy-value theory (EVT) of achievement motivation (see Wigfield & Eccles, 2000; Eccles & Wigfield, 2020)
- where “competence beliefs are low,” so is investment in “desirable difficulties.
- dnd yes, students are all too often focused on short term gains, afterall, cramming can be very effective.
Yes, we know as teachers that learning is a messy and complex business. As Higham et al, (2021) reported, the benefits are multifaceted, with relearning sessions associated with improved metacognition, increased self-reported sense of mastery, increased attentional control, and reduced anxiety. Furthemore, that students found successive relearning to be enjoyable and valuable. Who would have thought – students like getting smarter.
So where is this all going…
Essentially, it is a line of enquiry probing the low-fidelity (in classrooms) use-case of the term “desirable difficulty” and second, incorporating an assessment of motivation..
- Accepting that this “difficulty” is an individual difference: What is a desirably difficult? Alternatively, what is a desirable success rate?
- Accepting “challenging and effortful” learning benefits long-term learning: If success-motivation is reciprocal, how do we square that dilemma?
- At the moment, I am leaning towards separating encoding from retrieval.
To which Bridgid replied,
Something that I have been thinking a lot about, that relates to your question about “what is a desirable difficulty” is why some students/people want to take on challenging tasks. We know that our past experiences influence our future choice: Some of my recent work, actually shows that memories of previous achievement successes can influence students choices to continue to engage with difficult material in the future.Email 26 Jan 2020
Bridgid goes on to muse:
Why can some students tolerate this aversive feeling and added effort and others do not bother. Costs and values are of course at play here, and teasing out how those different motivational constructs influence these kind of self regulatory choices I think would help get at some of the questions you are asking.Email 26 Jan 2020
These points, and others, were discussed at length with Bridgid – before she shared an email and a final note.
Some papers that may be of interest to you.”
A review of those two papers followed. I will say, they were challenging to say the least but at least I learnt why I was motivated to persevere.
(Quotes shared after sharing the post with Bridgid Finn in advance of posting.)
Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(4), 475-79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.09.003
Finn, Bridgid. (2020). Exploring Interactions Between Motivation and Cognition to Better Shape Self-Regulated Learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 9. 461-467. 10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.08.008.
Higham, Philip, Zengel, Bettina, Bartlett, Laura and Hadwin, Julie A. (2021) The benefits of successive relearning on multiple learning outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology. (doi:10.1037/edu0000693).
McDaniel, M. A., Einstein, G. O., & Een, E. (2021). Training College Students to Use Learning Strategies: A Framework and Pilot Course. Social Media + Society, 20(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051221077022