According to a University of Saskatchewan accounting professor, making things easy for students doesn’t help them learn as much as making things difficult. Specifically, Fred Phillips, who has been teaching at the Edwards School of Business for 20 years, found that students retained things better when they had to struggle to overcome a problem.

He had 170 business students take part in a study where one set were given problems that were grouped together by concept, and the other had problems that were not. The latter group had a harder time of it, but on subsequent tests, scored better. A follow up test a week afterward showed that the second group retained more knowledge and did better by a large margin.

Phillips refers to this as desirable difficulty. For years he was of the opinion that professors were there to make it easier for students to learn, and students tend to feel that way too, but by challenging them, he can get his students to retain information for longer. His philosophy now is, basically, that professors need to challenge their students, and make things difficult for them so that they struggle, overcome the issue, and retain more of the learning. But professors need to make sure that they’re there to help.

The problem though, is finding a way to do that which doesn’t challenge students so much that they simply fail and quit. And, perhaps harder, is getting them to realize that their struggle is better for them in the long run. Students are conditioned to think that teachers who make it easy to learn are better, and so they need to unlearn a lot in order to accept the idea that desirable difficulty is, well, desirable. That will be the hard part of moving forward with a teaching philosophy like Phillips’, but with more studies, it may be possible to show just how useful desirable difficulty can be, and get more instructors on board with it.