The (Often Misconstrued) Relationship between Learning, Effort, and Difficulty

Credit: iStock.com/Chris Ryan
Credit: iStock.com/Chris Ryan

Learning requires effort and is often difficult, but the exact relationship between learning, effort, and difficulty is complex and often misunderstood by both teachers and students. The misunderstanding can lead both groups to behave in ineffective and even counterproductive ways. In this essay, I will discuss common misconceptions students and teachers hold about learning, effort, and difficulty and how these misconceptions can lead both groups astray. By effort, I mean that mental concentration and attentional focus a task requires. Cognitive research shows that mental effort is a limited resource in the human cognitive system. Effortful tasks take a substantial amount of concentration to perform (Chew & Cerbin, 2021). Difficult tasks not only require effort but also pose some level of challenge to overcome. Performing difficult tasks typically requires sustained, mindful concentration. When students struggle with learning a concept, it is a combination of effort and difficulty.

Learning novel, complex information is effortful, but is the opposite also true? Does effortful processing lead to learning? The evidence is mixed, with some research showing that effort can enhance learning (Tyler et al., 1979) and other research showing that it does not (Zacks et al., 1983). I believe that Hyde (1973) resolved this issue by showing that while difficulty per se did not enhance learning, difficulty that led to elaborative and meaningful processing did. To take a teaching example, writing a 10-page paper takes more effort than writing five-page paper, but the additional effort may not translate to more learning. It depends on the processing that the student went through in creating the longer paper.


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