Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Students Like Easy Work. Here’s How to Break That

The science behind “desirable difficulty”
By Angela Duckworth — January 17, 2024 1 min read
How do I help students who like to stick with easy work?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do I help students who like to stick with easy work?

You can explain to them the science behind desirable difficulty. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

When my daughter Amanda was young and still taking piano lessons, I’d half-listen from the second floor while she practiced down below.

Typically, she’d get pretty good at the opening measures of a new piece. But eventually she’d get to a part she didn’t know as well. At that point, music became noise.

Involuntarily, as Amanda clawed her way through the rough bits, I winced and cringed. And I bet she did, too, particularly because trying things we can’t yet do is especially effortful.

Very soon, there would be a pause. And then Amanda would begin again at the beginning—where she felt comfortable, where it was easy, where the touch of her fingers generated music instead of noise.

If I noticed that Amanda spent too much time repeating the fluid measures and not enough on what was obviously difficult for her, I’d come downstairs and, as gently as I could, prompt her to get back to the hard stuff.

Why do kids need grownups to encourage them through what cognitive scientists call “desirable difficulty”?

A recent study shows that students often misinterpret the feeling of “This is hard!” to mean “I must not be learning much!” However, the truth is that more effortful strategies, like quizzing yourself rather than just rereading notes, produce greater long-term learning gains. Difficulty is desirable ... but it’s not always desired.

Don’t assume that kids avoid effort because they’re lazy. Instead, they may be misreading the sensation of effort as a signal that they’re failing to make progress.

Do teach students that learning often requires struggle (and use these resources for the classroom). Share stories of times you, too, felt confused and frustrated and how persisting through difficulty helped you improve more than sticking to what you already knew. And, when their practice sounds and looks truly awful, tell them that the sound of struggle is music to your ears.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Nobody Wants to Look Stupid: Resources for Teaching About Executive Functions
Executive functioning is a learned skill, explains an educational therapist. Here’s how to teach it to your students—and yourself.
Lexi Peterson
4 min read
Little girl inside head of woman papercut vector illustration. Psychology, inner child, human individuality and memory of childhood healing concept
iStock/Getty Images
Student Well-Being Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Teens’ Tobacco and Nicotine Use?
Answer these seven questions about students’ nicotine and tobacco habits.
1 min read
A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Massachusetts on April 10, 2018.
A high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Massachusetts on April 10, 2018.
Steven Senne/AP
Student Well-Being Q&A A Superintendent Explains Why Her District Is Suing Social Media Companies
Student mental health and behavioral issues have become a major drain on district resources as social media use has risen.
3 min read
Teenage girl looking at smart phone
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being A Mental Health Screening Saved Students’ Lives in This District
A district that deployed a universal mental health screening was able to intervene immediately with five students who had suicide plans.
4 min read
Vector illustration of a counselor or psychologist holding a clipboard in one hand and an umbrella above in the other over an anxious woman who is tucking her head into her knees with a tangled line hovering above her head.
iStock/Getty