Desirable Difficulties in Learning, The Science of Learning

Cognaware (my app) And Desirable Difficulties

During the testing of Cognaware, something struck me. While answering the questions, you have to think about them. Not just a quick answer kind of thinking, but a dig deep to see if I know this kind of thinking. Not a difficult dig deep, but a digging that is required to judge whether you know the answer or not. Talk about a simple desirable difficulty.

Desirable Difficulties

Work spanning 30 – 40 years has found that introducing anything that makes a learner slow down and think about something increases the probability that they will remember it increases – sometimes dramatically. The testing effect is the current leader in embedding memories that don’t go away. The one week delayed recall with the testing effect demonstrates that the forgetting index is 30 – 40% lower than when learners simply study the material over and over.

Other effects that take advantage of the slow down and think desirable difficulties phenomena are the disfluency effect, spacing effect, organization effect, and the effect of discussions on learning. Getting learners to think about something involves deeper processing which has been shown again and again to foster better understanding and longer retention of information. In other words, the deeper processing of information actually leads to transforming information into knowledge and keeping the learning in there for longer than four days after an exam.

Desirable difficulties are a good thing in learning. Often the difficulties introduced are seemingly very slight (disfluency effect), but they work.

Cognaware introduces a new desirable difficulty in remembering information. We observed that the subjects in our studies quickly learned the answers to the questions that we were using, meaning that we had to constantly use new material in order to test the metacognitive effects. But, this learning can be hugely advantageous for students trying to remember the material.

Anyone who has read my writings will know that I do not equate memorization with learning. However, I have also acknowledged that remembering information – memorizing material – is crucial to building understanding. It is just that in today’s world of education, memorization has become the definition of learning – which I strongly disagree with. Before I get carried away, I will move on from the memorization = learning idea.

Memorization plays a central role in learning. My new app, Cognaware, helps learners remember material as a new desirable difficulty.

Although my app will be missing some of the components that I was hoping to include (shallow pocket syndrome), I am hoping to be able to generate enough money from the app to be able to incorporate a user upload feature for question banks. Right now, I have to upload all the question banks, which I’m happy to do if you ask me to.

We’ll have to see how things play out, but for now, one of the things that I can say, with confidence, is that using Cognaware, as a way for learners to remember material, will increase the ability and speed of memorization as well as the retention of information exponentially when compared to regular quiz practice, flashcards, or repeated studying of material. Something worth thinking about.

The app is still free, but there is a revenue-generating feature that I am hoping will allow me to fully develop the app to meet the needs of researchers and teachers wanting to use it for other purposes.

Watch for it next week – or more likely two weeks since nothing is ever finished when you want it to be done.

4 thoughts on “Cognaware (my app) And Desirable Difficulties

  1. It is in the wider testing phase now, so have a look at it. If you see anything that isn’t great, let me know (

    The biggest challenge that I see now is finding the question banks that you want to use. Uploading one is easy. The problem is that, because I have had to pay for the entire app myself, I had to drop a lot of the functionality. So, every question bank wil appear in the scroll wheel. Given the interest, I think that this will quickly bog the entire thing down. I have to make enough money on the app to be able to incorporate a way to choose the Q’banks that you want to appear on your list.

    Right now all I can do is give them a rough order. If you have 11/12 year olds that you want to use the app, I can make them appear at the top of the list of Q’banks. As soon as I can fford it, I am going to build a categorization system that can focus the user right down to a particular classroom or textbook.

    I’m hoping.

    • Merilyn Cockayne

      Jesse, every time I try to sign up the app closes completely. I had assumed this was because it was not yet ready for sign up.

  2. Merilyn Cockayne

    Very excited to see your app listed in the App store. Eagerly waiting for it to become functional so I can apply what I think you are saying to the opportunities the app provides.
    My interest is in how I apply Cognaware to improve my thinking but also how I can interpret and apply this to my teaching of Year 6 students. I’m hoping to use the holiday period to read more of your writing and make the links to our Australian Curriculum so that I can prepare tasks that trigger thinking and draw in students.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I haven’t made any announcements about the app because I’m still passing bugs back to the developer to be fixed. Can you tell me what your phone model is so I can get him to address this problem. If you can’t sign in, the app isn’t much good to you.

      Enjoy the writings. I try to make sure that it is an easy read. I used to teach stats and so am pretyty good at reading dry, dusty material and making it easier to digest.

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