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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  • Jane Leslie Jackson

    This is interesting Mary- I was just thinking about this as we complete Susan Friedman’s current LLA course. The setup for homework was designed so we were successful- queries back and forth from the teachers which helped us think things through until they felt we had a good handle on it and could proceed. I just told them, after the “final”, which was set up the same way, that I was willing to submit my final with 99% of the answers from my memory. Open book was perfectly acceptable and normally I would do that so as to be sure I was “right”. But in this case, I had a talk with myself, after 8 weeks of the experience, and decided I’d learn more from doing it from memory and then getting the feedback than I would from looking it up and writing down what I read. It was a great experience.

  • Jenny H

    Mary, I LOVE your Sunday Science series 🙂
    But re the students’ complaints while learning should not be difficult, the material covered should be interesting to the student. It IS possible to make it too easy, too simple. (I remember I used to skip every second Botany I lecture, because it was all going so s-l-o-w-l-y, and, anyway, it was all repeat of Matriculation Biology.
    Then , Jane, Open-book tests have a real place in teaching/learning.
    Many things that we want to test, at least in science, do not involved memory so much as ability to apply the information. In ‘real life’ we can look up the tables/subject dictionaries so why not in tests? For instance, part of my (serious) problem with physics was an inability to remember ALL the equations. I could DO the problems with the text book on hand, but you do need this equations. Sure you DO do better if you can remember them all, because you than don’t waste time looking up the necessary info.
    Then, as a teacher I found with the ‘slower’ (dumber, less gifted, academically challenged) kids you were lucky if they could pass a test even when the answers were given in the text. It is good for these kids to realise that all they needed was to read the question to get the answer!
    And then, even for the gifted students, an open book test IS an excellent way to get them to revise! 🙂
    I GO for open book tests!! If you don’t want the students cheating by writing out prepared answers — likely as not done by someone else — then provide the ‘book’ (texts) for the exam in the exam room.

  • Jenny H

    As to Sidman’s students, I suspect that the problem was the same as I found out when teaching School. The kids wanted to come FIRST, and WIN, and be BETTER that their classmates.
    Set the exam so nearly everyone gets nearly full marks, and they cannot demonstrate their superiority to the other student.
    Thank goodness we do not have that problem with our dogs! But in a ‘training class’ we CAN find that problem with our human students ;-(
    How to overcome those problems, I don’t know. I do know that there are lots of drop out from ‘no-fail’ courses. (The old “I know all this, so I’m wasting my time” syndrome.) The difference between the no fail and the competitive type class is probably WHO drops out, not how many 🙁