Effective learning is not meant to feel easy

Effective learning should feel uncomfortable, and to be an effective learner you’ll need to be OK with this. Equally important, to be an effective learning designer you’ll need to think of ways to make the learning uncomfortable – but not too uncomfortable.

Let’s describe this with a real example.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Many guitarists (myself included) tend to go on autopilot and play what they know. What’s wrong with that? Nothing if you’re not focused on improving. You’re not challenging yourself to learn anything new, you’re just rehashing old songs or licks (licks are musical passages).

To extend this analogy for effective learning to happen, you need to try stuff that you don’t yet know how to play. Stuff which is difficult and makes you feel that after all these years ‘I’m not that great!’ When you’re feeling this way you’re getting outside your comfort zone. You’ll make mistakes, your performance of this new material, by comparison, will be poor – but hey this is effective learning! And through this process your performance will improve.

In short – learning is about making mistakes, and fixing them. Each time you overcome a mistake, so that you don’t repeat it – that’s learning in action. But, making mistakes is uncomfortable, and it’s human nature that once we start getting proficient at something – we can, and do, avoid situations that make us feel that way.

Watch Inspire Group CEO, Dan Tohill’s 1-minute video on effective learning and the trap some learning designers can fall into

So, how does this relate to effective learning and learning design?

As you can see from the model below, as learners, staying within our comfort zone is tempting because we can lull ourselves into a false sense of mastery. However, it stops us from critically assessing ourselves and looking for areas for improvement. It feels good though.


Unfortunately, easy isn’t challenging and doesn’t show we’re learning, even though learners may report they are. For learning to happen there needs to be a mild state of discomfort or ‘desirable difficulty’. The concept of ‘desirable difficulty’, first introduced by Robert Bjork (Bjork, 1994; McDaniel & Butler), has been shown to greatly improve the effectiveness of learning. Read more about Bjork’s concept here:

Psychology In Action Article – Desirable Difficulties In The Classroom

So how can we, as learning designers, ensure we design desirable difficulties into our learning? Learning that is both desirable (your learners feel engaged and are motivated) and challenging.

Are you already incorporating desirable difficulties into your learning?

You may be:

  • using spacing rather than dumping all the learning in one session
  • using testing/learning checks to reinforce the learning
  • designing a problem-centric approach. This is a personal favourite as learning starts to become more aligned to what the learner will actually be doing in the job and automatically engaging (as humans we love to solve problems). It also provides ample opportunities to unpack the experience and build nuanced feedback not just specific to the task at hand. For example, “How well did you interact with others when working on this challenge?”.

Here are a couple of other examples that seem counter-intuitive but have sound research to indicate their effectiveness

You can try:

  • testing the learner before actually providing any learning content or learning experience. This appears to prime the learners and whets their appetite for the learning
  • making the content less organised. Wow! This seems totally counter-intuitive. However, if we are spoon-feeding our learners too much in the way of pre-packaged content we are actually doing them a disservice, particularly if they have some prior knowledge.

Let’s explore that last example a little further; Bjork’s assertion related to the concepts of retrieval vs storage strength.

If learning designers make learning too easy this can cause a misleading boost in the retrieval strength without causing the deeper processing that encourages the long-term retention afforded by higher storage strength.”

My simplistic summary is that knowledge/learning is sitting on the surface and hasn’t yet sunk in. Similar to cramming before a final exam.

And the more important concept is the “misleading boost in retrieval strength”. So the learners found it easy and now potentially have a false sense of mastery.

We seek great feedback from our learners, reporting that they loved the learning and it felt so easy. Yes, we want engagement and desirable learning but by designing for this sort of feedback, we are missing the point. Wouldn’t it be better, and more satisfying for the learner, if they reported the learning was tough and made their brain hurt a bit, but it’s positively affected their performance back on the job? We need to be careful what we are measuring and when we are measuring it.

In summary

If we are designing learning for longer-term and sustainable change we need to:

  • avoid making learning easy and straightforward. Learners need to feel a sense of discomfort
  • not confuse learning with performance. Learning is the time to make mistakes and get things wrong. It’s OK and part of the process. If the learning is too easy we can lure the learner into a false sense of mastery
  • use desirable difficulties to increase storage strength to promote longer-term retention
  • avoid the trap of being rewarded by learners reporting that the learning was great because it felt easy.


This article was written by Dan Tohill who is our Inspire Group founder and CEO. Dan is a learning specialist with a background in business psychology, which provides an academic underpinning to his innovative and pragmatic solutions. Over the last 20 years Dan has led a number of high-profile learning initiatives in New Zealand and Asia Pacific. He is also a keen guitarist, father of two, supportive leader and all round good guy.


If you want to know more about this topic, or have any questions at all about learning and how to create better learning, please feel free to contact Dan directly at DTohill@inspiregroup.co.nz


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