Is what is easy to learn, easy to forget or is what is harder to learn, harder to remember (Koriat, 2008)? Addressing this question is important in determining what constitutes as effective tasks. Hence, I ask here, what fosters the best retention, an easy or hard task?

The easy learn, easy forget argument may exist due to greater mental processing required for harder materials. Rhodes and Anastasi (2000) have shown that the greater the effort spent on the task, using higher levels of processing techniques, the greater the recall. However, in using completion time as an indication of task difficulty, Koriat (2008) found that with greater task difficulty, the less likely items are recalled. Instead, Koriat (2008) found that there was often a decreased sense of learning with the decreased difficulty in tasks. Hence, there may be a general illusion that learning does not occur during certain easy tasks when, in fact, learning is possible.

Koriat (2008) also drew attention a possible aspect of simpler tasks that can increase both completion rate and retention, which is familiarity. Familiarity, which can be the phenomenon of an item reminding the individual of another item (Mecklinger, 2000), can be an important factor in verbal learning (Noble, 1953). Likewise, Gathercole (1995) found that non-words that appear like more real words are more accurately reproduced.

In argument for difficulty, Bjork (1988) concluded that the retrieval tasks have to be more difficult to promote greater retention in subsequent retrieve attempts. Nevertheless, these difficult retrieval tasks can be implemented alongside relatively easy learning tasks.

Still, there is a risk in having tasks being both too easy and too hard, and the risk is demotivation (Watkin & Slocum, 2004). As a result, tasks need to be tuned to contain the right degree of challenge for each individual student (Watkins & Slocum, 2004). This is the basis of the Region of Proximal Learning framework, which specified that materials should be easy but not yet mastered by the learner (Metcalfe, 2011). This focus on progressing through materials with easy to learn steps has been argued to greater rates and enjoyability in learning compared to materials that are too difficult (Metcalfe, 2011; Watkin & Slocum, 2004). The Desirable Difficulty perspective, which encourages the use of difficult tasks, also specified that the difficulty has to be desirable (Metcalfe, 2011).

In conclusion, the difficulty of learning tasks has to be moderated in the challenge posed to individual students. While easy to learn materials are more easily remembered, tasks have to be on materials the learner has yet to master and the retrieval tasks have to be more difficult.

 

References

Bjork, R. A. (1988). Retrieval practice and the maintenance of knowledge. In: M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory II (pp. 396-401). London: Wiley.

Gathercole, S. E. (1995). Is nonword repetition a test of phonological memory or long-term knowledge? It all depends on the nonwords. Memory & Cognition, 23, 83-94. doi:10.3758/BF03210559

Koriat, A. (2008). Easy comes, easy goes? The link between learning and remembering and its exploitation in metacognition. Memory & Cognition, 36, 416-428. doi:10.3758/MC.36.2.416

Mecklinger, A. (2000). Interfacing mind and brain: A neurocognitive model of recognition memory. Psychophysiology, 37, 565-582.

Metcalfe, J. (2011). Desirable difficulties and studying in the region of proximal learning. In: A. S. Benjamin (Eds.), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 259-276). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Noble, C. E. (1953). The meaning-familiarity relationship. Psychological Review, 60, 89-98.

Rhodes, M. G., & Anastasi, J. S. (2000). The effects of a levels-of-processing manipulation on false recall. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 7, 158-162.

Watkins, C. L., & Slocum, T. A. (2004). The components of Direct Instruction. Journal of Direct Instruction, 3, 75-110.

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