As educators, we might think that a perfect lesson is one in which students immediately respond to our instruction and quickly grasp a challenging concept or learn a complex skill we have introduced. These experiences can be uplifting and reinforcing, but they do not always lead to the best learning outcomes for our students.
When students are immediately able to grasp and apply what they have been taught, it is likely that they already knew some (or much) of what they heard or that the content was not as challenging as we assumed it would be. Unfortunately, it is also true that the learning that comes easily and quickly can be forgotten just as easily and quickly.
We know that struggle is a key part of deep and long retained learning. Still, though, a common perception is that when learning comes easily, it is a sign of being smart, and when learning requires struggle, it indicates that the learner must not be very skilled. Students who learn quickly often have strong short-term memories that make them able to repeat and demonstrate what they have been taught in the near term. Obviously, we do not want students to become overwhelmed with the difficulty of struggle, but when students struggle at the leading edge of their learning, they must pay attention, examine, and grapple with what they are learning. As a result, new learning becomes more deeply embedded in their understanding and memories. Consequently, struggle should not be an experience confined to students who lack robust academic background knowledge or who need more time to process and make sense of what they are taught.
If we want to nurture proficient, highly skilled, confident learners, we need to design struggle into the learning we present to them. Struggle must become an expected—even welcomed—element of the learning in which they engage. Let’s examine six benefits that learning struggles can generate for our students.
Designed struggle in learning…
- Leads to clarity. Struggle often begins with confusion about what and how to learn. As students sift and sort through what they already know and discover new elements to be learned, they gradually gain clarity and insight that lead to learning progress and ultimate success. Overcoming struggle involves the pursuit of understanding and finding a productive path forward.
- Improves memory. When learning comes easily, students can neglect to transfer what they have learned from working memory to long-term memory. Consequently, it can be quickly lost and will need to be relearned when needed again in the future. On the other hand, when students engage in struggle, their brains are more likely to recognize the significance of what is being learned and transfer it to long-term memory for later recall.
- Encourages use of multiple strategies. When learning involves struggle, obvious and previously relied-upon strategies can be inadequate or inappropriate for use. As a result, students often must discover, design, and deploy new approaches. Learning how to be flexible, preparing to find new paths, and practicing new tactics can be important life success skills that extend well beyond formal, school-based learning.
- Nurtures resilience. Struggle invites students to do more than try or persist. When students learn new strategies, discover new approaches, and deploy new tactics, they are simultaneously growing their resilience. No longer are they repeating what has not worked for them; rather, they are learning to shift their thinking and adjust their behavior in ways that can be transferred to other areas of life when they encounter significant challenges and setbacks.
- Builds confidence. The more students engage in learning that challenges them and the more that they build skills and strategies to prevail, the more confidence they develop in their learning abilities. Consequently, when these students find themselves struggling, they are less likely to conclude that they are not capable and that they should give up. Students who know that struggle is an important aspect of learning and who have a history of overcoming struggle to find success do not panic. They also do not underestimate their ability to learn challenging things.
- Leads to satisfaction. Interestingly, satisfaction is a direct result of experiencing and overcoming struggle. In fact, without struggle, satisfaction can be a rare emotion. The more often students must struggle in their learning, the more satisfaction they are likely to glean from the experience.
Our students’ guardians, too, can fall into the trap of assuming that fast and easy learning is a sign of learning skill. We may need to explain and demonstrate the value of learning struggles so that they do not become alarmed when their students who have not struggled in the past find themselves having to develop new skills and strategies to be successful.