Research School Network: Study Success and Desirable Difficulty Success is an important factor in motivation – how do we reconcile that with desirable difficulty?


Study Success and Desirable Difficulty

Success is an important factor in motivation – how do we reconcile that with desirable difficulty?

by Bradford Research School
on the

Mark Miller is Director of Bradford Research School

How can we motivate students to study? One answer is to teach them the tools, as we explored in our last blog. In this one, we consider the role of success and difficulty in managing motivation to study.

One of the biggest drivers of motivation is success. As Peps McCrea writes in Motivated Teaching: 

Our motivation is heavily influenced by our anticipation of future success; the likelihood that we will reap the benefits, for ourselves or for our groups, if we invest in an opportunity.”

We have a problem here, because studying doesn’t offer immediate success, as outlined in this excerpt from the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning Guidance report:

An obvious truth is that our pupils often have to make tricky choices when learning independently, such as doing their homework tasks over giving in to more immediate gratifications… Our pupils need to be able to balance short term—or proximal—goals, with longer term learning goals and rewards—their distal goals. These are […] not necessarily strategies that children spontaneously develop, so they will need to be taught.

Successful study and desirable difficulty

How do we reconcile the need for success in a study session and the fact that effective study is often difficult? It’s probably a good idea to talk to students about what we mean by desirable difficulties and the fact that learning is effortful.

Robert and Elizabeth Bjork coined the term desirable difficulties’ to describe the counter-intuitive findings that making learning more effortful leads to longer term gains, while feeling harder in the short term. Examples include retrieval, interleaving, spacing and variation.

So when students are sitting at home finding retrieval practice difficult, they can actually celebrate this as a successful part of learning – they are doing it right. (Well, they may also be doing it wrong by designing cues that make it too hard to retrieve so we should double check that!)

We can also share appropriate findings from research e.g. those summarised in Dunlosky’s Strengthening the Student Toolbox, where rereading and highlighting are at the bottom of the list of effective study strategies.


The proof is in the pudding. So when the success of a study session is not immediate, we should make sure that when pupils complete the activity they were studying for, we attribute their success to how they have prepared. Here is a simple sheet that I have used to help pupils unpack their performance and attribute success or lack of it.

Exam wrapper

These tools are often referred to exam wrappers’. According to Carnegie Mellon University, exam wrappers support students to do the following: 

  • identify their own individual areas of strength and weakness to guide further study;
  • reflect on the adequacy of their preparation time and the appropriateness of their study strategies;
  • and characterise the nature of their errors to find any recurring patterns that could be addressed.

Sam Atkins of Durrington Research School has written a fantastic blog on this very topic, sharing a range of examples here.

Attribution isn’t just about success. It could be a wake-up call to say that taking the easy methods of study didn’t pay dividends. Or it could be that a certain method didn’t work despite our best efforts. All of these things are okay, and coming to these conclusions is success in itself.

Or as Zimmerman (2002) writes:

Attributing a poor score to limitations in fixed ability can be very damaging motivationally because it implies that efforts to improve on a future test will not be effective. In contrast, attributing a poor math score to controllable processes, such as the use of the wrong solution strategy, will sustain motivation because it implies that a different strategy may lead to success.

A final thought comes back to our previous post on the tools to study. One of the biggest barriers to successful study is knowledge of the most appropriate tools to do so. So teaching them is a big step to success.

Zimmerman BJ (2002) Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview. Theory into Practice 41(2) 64 – 70

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