Sunday science: Does learning have to be difficult?

Science Sunday posts are short posts about the science of animal behavior and training. They often feature a quote or a passage of text. Spend a moment today thinking about the ideas in the post. As always, you can share your thoughts or questions in the comments section.

Behavior Analysis Book Shelf

The following passage is from a 1985 article by Murray Sidman, which was published originally in Portuguese in the journal Psicologia. In one part of the article, Sidman discusses a neuroanatomy text that he wrote in the 1960s for medical students. Medical students usually consider neuroanatomy to be a quite difficult subject. Sidman’s neuroanatomy text (which went through many revisions!) was designed so that students would make very, very few errors while learning important neuroanatomy concepts and terms.

In a near-final test, we gave the Neuroanatomy program to a group of students who were just beginning the course. As they went through the program in class, we observed them becoming very disturbed—grumbling, moving about noisily, and asking questions in hostile tones. The problem finally became clear when some of them spoke out directly, “This is too easy; you must be trying to fool us; what is the catch?” Like most students, they had been “brainwashed,” learning had to be difficult. They were making no mistakes, so how could they be learning anything? What kind of trick was being played upon them? “Good” teachers threw difficult material at them and made them work to learn it. They could not conceive of the possibility that a teacher might be trying to teach, to arrange conditions so effectively that learning might take place errorlessly. Eventually, of course, they discovered that they really were learning, and they relaxed, but it was a new experience for them.

Murray Sidman
Errorless learning and its significance for teaching the mentally handicapped, 1985

"This is too easy; you must be trying to fool us; what is the catch?" Murray Sidman

When learning is suddenly easy, this can be very jarring or disconcerting to the student, particularly if learning has always been difficult or if the student has been taught in the past with aversive techniques and punishment. Trainers see this sometimes with animals new to clicker training. The new rules are SO different, that the animal is confused and just doesn’t know how to respond. Usually, once the animal understands the new rules and begins to see the fun of clicker training, it begins to relax, just like Sidman’s students.

Does learning have to be difficult? It is commonly accepted that some subjects or skills are just hard to learn. Calculus immediately comes to mind. And, learning how to ride a unicycle. Or, learning hundreds of different terms while taking a neuroanatomy course. But, when something is really difficult for many people to learn, does that mean the skill is hard or that we just don’t have good teaching methods yet?

Think about your field or discipline.

What topics or skills are considered very hard to learn?

What makes these skills hard?

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