I recently had the opportunity to visit the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA. It’s one of the world’s pre-eminent centers for research on learning, and we’ve reported on many of their findings in past blog posts. I was interested to learn what they’re focusing on right now and what might be coming down the pike.

In a word: Lots. And we’ll be reporting on new findings as they emerge from the lab.

What was especially interesting to me, however, was a common thread that seems to run through much of their research: Learning done right is hard work. Not only for trainers and teachers, but also for learners.

The Lab’s research into concepts such as “desirable difficulties” show that struggle is what makes learning stick. For example, if you give people a passage to read in a hard-to-read font, they’re more likely to remember what they read. Those who ace a quiz don’t recall as much as those who get some questions wrong. Struggle is probably what’s behind the power of the Spacing Effect, according to Principal Investigator Elizabeth Ligon Bjork: When you present a topic and revisit it a few days later, learners have to work to dig it out of memory.

Getting smarter, but feeling dumber

But here’s the problem: When learning comes easy, learners feel smart. They think they got a lot out of the training. When they struggle, they feel dumb — or, more precisely, they think the training failed. Even as they learn more, they believe they’re learning less.

And that creates a big challenge for those of us involved in workplace training. We go to great lengths to give people a positive learning experience. It’s what employees want. It’s what top management expects. It’s how training — and trainers — get evaluated. But what if good evaluations are (gulp) coming at the expense of learning?

It’s not just a problem for corporate trainers. The implications for higher education are disturbing. Dr. Bjork points out, for example, that positive student evaluations on sites like ratemyprofessors.com may be inversely related to how much students are actually learning. But professors need those high ratings — otherwise nobody will take their classes next semester.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Fortunately, there seems to be, say the smart people at the lab. Learning needs to be challenging and rewarding. For example, you probably want to give learners some easy wins — especially in the beginning — to keep them motivated and engaged. As their sense of mastery improves, you can make things harder for them.

Is it difficult to strike this balance between engagement and effort? No doubt. But who said training was supposed to be easy?

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