Desirable Difficulties in Learning

The Science of Learning: Organization Effect

The organization effect is the desirable difficulty that asks about who does the organization of the material. Teaching today usually has the teacher doing the reading for the students, organizing the material into nice little bullet-points, reading the bullet-points to the students, and finally, handing the bullet-points out to the students in class or having them print them themselves after making them available on a VLE. Such an efficient way of doing things is easy for everyone.

Research clearly shows us that if the teacher organizes material for the students the learning is far shallower, and the learning indicators are all immediate performance based indicators as opposed to long-term learning indicators.

If the goal of a teacher is the immediate verbatim recall of material, then the students should have material organized for them as they tend to perform about 5% higher than if the student has to organize the material themselves. If you are looking for another advantage that works for both immediate and delayed recall, if you ask students to paraphrase information then they will enjoy an 8% advantage when you organize it for them as opposed to when they organize it themselves.

However, in a delayed testing situation the students’ ability to infer the learned material to a new problem set is worse when the teacher organizes the information by15% on average. The real big loss is noticed when the students try to solve a new, but similar problem with the same information – 41% in a delayed testing situation, but even a 15% drop when they are tested immediately.

For almost every learning goal when the students organize their own material, picking out the main points and summarizing them from the entire mass of information available, their learning and memory of the material is much better – the exceptions being when the teacher is looking for verbatim or paraphrasing recall.

In all four of the desirable difficulties I have written about – the testing effect, the spacing effect, the disfluency effect, and the organizational effect, the memory traces for what is being learned are stronger and more durable when more effort is required to learn material than when the learning is made easier and less effort is required. This is the theme of one of my earlier articles called Effort in Learning. However, in all four cases, the easier option (for the learner) produced a better immediate performance indicator for the administrative measurement of learning (assigning grades). If a teacher’s (or institution’s) goal is to measure peak performance only then make learning as easy as possible for their students. Learning anything meaningful is a difficult process, and if we want meaningful learning then we can’t make it as easy as possible, no matter how popular it makes you with students. Although I have been told that since higher education is a competitive business in today’s world, keeping students happy must take precedence over any meaningful learning that might take place – the all important student experience.

If the goal of learning is to demonstrate immediate peak performance, then most teachers and institutions are doing the right things. However, if the goals for the learner are goals such as:

  • knowledge and skills acquired during the learning process should be stable and durable
  • knowledge and skills learned should be able to survive long periods of time when the knowledge or skills are not used, and be able to be recalled in a useful state when needed
  • produce and have available a mental representation of the knowledge or skill that allows for flexible access to that information in different settings

We have to ask ourselves, what is it that we really want learning and memory to do? What does society expect our college or university graduates to be able to do? Maximizing peak performance with a midterm or a final exam is a meaningless exercise if your goal is to have durable and accessible learning and memory that will be accessible and available when needed.

One thought on “The Science of Learning: Organization Effect

  1. Pingback: Ikea’s Value of Learning. – Cognitive mindset

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