‘Desirable difficulties’ in higher education

A re-blog from the LSE Education Blog

In this, the first of our Heresy of the Week mini-series, Dr Esther Saxey of LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre discusses Elizabeth Bjork’s and Robert Bjork’s work on ‘desirable difficulties’ and explains how making things hard for students – if the right things are chosen  – can be good for learning.

Source: Heresy of the Week 1: ‘Desirable difficulties’ in higher education

Sharing – sometimes frustrating, but also fun!

Followers of our blog might recall that, last year, Jenni and Natasha took part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. Well, we’re embarking on it again this year and we thought it would be interesting to reflect at the end of each week on our experiences and try to relate our activities to the world of learning and teaching. Here, Jenni reflects on the first week…

Day 1:An image of fireworks exploding Have you heard the news?

Great start to the challenge – or so I thought! The idea was to design the front page of a newspaper with stories that you would like to see in 2017. The thought of doing something around visitors coming to earth from other planets popped straight into my head, which will come as no surprise to those that know me well!

I have to admit that I did spend a little time looking at other peoples’ contributions before getting started on mine. Funny how I frame that as a confession. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but no doubt that seeing other contributions further shaped my thoughts. There were a lot of ‘world peace’ headlines being posted, and I think that made me think I might not use that actual term.

I think the reason I feel the need to ‘confess’ to being influenced by others goes back to the ‘it should all be your own work’ that so often pervades teaching and learning. Not a notion I subscribe to, but one that is deep-seated. How frustrating it must be for students if we over-emphasise individual work rather than encouraging collaboration.

Anyway, I decided to produce my newspaper using Sway – and that’s when things really went to pot! I am new to using this, but had the basics sorted. No problems producing the newspaper, but then I had to share. To cut a long story short, a combination of the embed code seemingly not working and the institution I work in disabling the ‘public’ share options (or so Sway kept telling me!) meant that anyone wanting to view the newspaper had to sign in with their Microsoft user details. In the end I just had to do a screen grab of the headline and post that.

The first ‘take home’ message from this is obviously check the functionality of any tech. you are going to use before you use it! But there is also something here about barriers being put in the way of sharing. Might have to re-visit that thought in a later post.

I missed the next couple of activities due to some bad news that meant my focus had to be elsewhere.

Day 4 – a deeper shade of blue

Day 4 of #64millionartists January Challenge. Walking around looking for blue. Part 1.

A post shared by Jenni Carr (@jenniwithoutthee) on

The challenge was to take a 10 – 15 minute walk and focus on spotting things that were blue and photographing them. I work near to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, so decided to go for a walk there. Now I know that commonsense should have told me that this would have been better for green stuff rather than blue… Still it was a nice walk! Had to do a bit of walking around campus to get the images I needed.

Changing the focus of this activity, but keeping the format, has a lot of potential, I think. Instead of looking for colours you could ask students to focus on a concept or theory. They could go for a walk, in small groups and capture images that they feel in some way represent that concept or theory. The images could then be displayed (or presented) with an explanation. Getting students to apply their knowledge in this way should really deepen their understanding. Word of warning – when you send them off for their walk, tell them what time you expect them back! That was a lesson I learned on my first placement when studying for my PGCE. Losing all my students for a complete double period didn’t go down too well with my mentor!

Day 5: the golden conversation

Now I love poetry, but don’t feel very confident about writing it myself. Always in awe of those that can. But the idea of taking the first line of the fifth text on your phone and using it to structure a poem was such a novel idea that I thought I would give it a go. Having looked at which text I would need to use (coincidentally a text from fellow blogger Natasha!) I suffered a bit of a ‘poet’s block’.

I arrived in my office and explained the task to a colleague who immediately got their phone out and wrote their poem. Just like that! Their advice to me was ‘just don’t overthink it’. The words in the text immediately suggested to them the tone of their poem, and they just wrote. So I did the same. And it sort of worked.

What was a little odd was that the original text had been designed to cheer me up, but the poem was rather gloomy.

But I think the main insight here was that sometimes it’s not good to think too much. I’m a big fan of free-writing usually, and encourage it in all kinds of settings with students, and this experience reminded me why.

Day 6: ABC go

Such fun! A game of photo tag. You form a group. Someone takes a photo of an object beginning with the letter ‘a’, next person does ‘b’ and so on. Now have to say we weren’t too good with the ‘tagging’ notion in the sense that we didn’t nominate who should do the next photo. Ended up being a  bit of a free for all – but we got the challenge done and had some good laughs along the way.

I suppose with my teaching and learning head on I should say something about this illustrating how group activities need to be set-up very carefully and you need to ensure everyone knows the rules. But, well, the chaos was kinda fun!

Here’s some of the photo’s we took.

Feeling inspired? It’s not too late to join. Sign up here if you want to get challenging! Follow the daily conversation on twitter #64millionartists .

Engaging undergraduates in independent research: LSE Groups

This week my LSE colleague, Esther, and I  will be off to the Engage 2016 conference to talk about LSE Groups. This initiative takes place at the end of the Summer Term when undergraduate students from across the School can opt to take part in a two-week research project.

Yes – a research project completed in just two weeks! As a relatively recent arrival to  LSE I thought the idea was more than a little bit mad… But then I saw it in action.

Students come together in interdisciplinary, cross-year groups to develop a research question, decide on an appropriate methodology, collect and analyse data and write up their findings. And when I say ‘write up’ I mean a full paper and conference presentation!

Of course they don’t do this entirely on their own. There is a group of supervisors who are on hand to advise the students, and other staff present workshops on research ethics and methodologies. But the idea that underpins the project is that this should be independent research – the students call the shots.

The abstracts from last year’s projects illustrate just how ambitious students can be when given this independence. One of the groups (Hipsters and Spikes: mapping gentrification and defensive architecture in Tower Hamlets ) won the prestigious Booth Prize at the recent LSE Research Festival. The judges commented “The judges felt that this work touched closely on both themes and methods featured in Charles Booth’s pioneering work, combining state of the art mapping techniques with qualitative research to enhance our understanding of how inequality is produced in urban contexts.”

And the video below illustrates the process in more detail.

But there is an inherent tension in trying to provide students with this independence within the two week timescale and trying to encourage the students to think about the public engagement role of social science research. Do we try and enlist the help of certain organisations in advance and risk narrowing the possible choices students can make when designing their projects? If we are going to ask the students to do more to disseminate their findings to relevant organisations, which would involve a much bigger time commitment on the students’ part, might we reduce the number of students willing to participate? These and many other questions have shaped our thinking as we have tried to envisage LSE Groups as a more publicly engaged project. And we are hoping that our colleagues at the Engage conference will help us to find some answers! We are also hoping that people who can’t attend the conference will also share their thoughts, and you can do this by using the comments section of this blog.

Thanks in advance for your advice and support.





Do, think, share #64millionartists

Junk modelling
Junk modelling

New Year’s Day. The day when everyone makes those resolutions to start dieting, take up more exercise and just generally be a ‘better’ person. Years ago I stopped making those resolutions because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never keep them.

So why was this year any different?

Searching on Twitter (I know!) for ideas about the role of creativity in learning and teaching, I came across the account for 64 Million Artists and decided in  a mad moment to sign-up for their January Challenge. Still haven’t really unpacked what prompted that impulse, but I’m glad that I did.

Put simply, you get an email to your mailbox every day throughout January outlining a different creative challenge. You do, then think, then share.

Over the month I have, amongst other things, compiled a picture of the year ahead,  made a junk sculpture, danced myself silly (nothing new there!), documented my day through taking a photo every hour (goodness my life is boring!), carried out a random act of kindness and, written a story a line at a time in partnership with fellow Lacunae blogger, Natasha.

I won’t claim to have completed all the challenges.  But I had a go at most of them. You can see my responses to the challenges, and those of many others, on Twitter via #64millionartists.

So what did I take away from this experience, and how is it relevant to learning and teaching?


Talking to my 8-year old self.
Talking to my 8-year old self.

It’s amazing how much time you can spend thinking and writing about creativity, and yet not actually do any creative activity beyond the thinking and writing.. I think this can be a real issue when working as an academic developer. I have certainly spent more time showing people how to make rich pictures and explaining the theory behind them than I have ever spent doing them myself.

Putting aside 20 minutes a day to complete the challenge, and allowing myself some more time if I was enjoying the activity, was a real treat.  And I did feel like I had achieved something everyday. I don’t consider myself to be any good at certain types of creative activities but I am quite competitive, so turn the activity into a challenge and I’ll give it a go!

I think this points to the first take away message from this challenge. Having a go was what mattered. And having someone else telling me what it was I had to have a go at gave me permission to not be very good at it.

As teachers do we give ourselves time to do something each day (or even each week!) that we might not be very good at? By this I don’t mean the ‘worthy’ activity of identifying areas for CPD and working on them. I mean just having a go at something where the outcome itself is of little consequence. Given we are all so time poor, it isn’t surprising if we don’t. But perhaps we should.The actual ‘doing’ bit of the tasks, which in many cases involved very tactile experiences, felt very satisfying. This was definitely more about process than outcome.

And it is that focus on process that might make this a very useful learning tool when students can be so very focused on outcome. It’s difficult to introduce tasks into learning and teaching that aren’t directly related to the context of their desired outcomes (their qualifications) – “If it doesn’t count towards their grade, they won’t do it”. And because of this we do take the time and effort to try and contextualise activities that don’t involve direct scored assessment by explaining how they might help them do better in that type of assessment. Once again we drag their thinking back to outcome rather than process.

But what if we didn’t try and do this contextualisation? What if we just provided a short, sharp bit of creative ‘doing’ each day? Would they do it? They might if it were fun!

But why would we, as teachers, bother?


Memories of summer
Memories of summer

Now you don’t need me to reiterate here all the arguments about the role of reflection in and on learning – hopefully we can all agree that this is a ‘good thing’. But it is not always easy to get students to engage in reflection in a consistent and constructive way. In order to somehow structure the activity we provide templates or series of questions that require a response.

Perhaps we should think about how we can use a much more ‘free association’ approach (going all Freudian!) to encouraging the development of these particular academic muscles. The prompts given by the 64 million artists team were What was it like? Did you enjoy the experience? Did it feel difficult?

The qualitative researcher in me baulks at the inclusion of some closed questions as a prompt for reflection, but actually I found they worked well. When short of time or feeling a little alienated by any of the activities, I could respond quite simply no/yes, but often I found that afterwards the question of ‘why that response?’ spent time percolating through my thought processes. Sometimes even eliciting more sophisticated responses! At other times I felt I could just stick with the no/yes response with no need to justify my response in any way.

Might students, especially those only just beginning to shape their academic identities, find this a more engaging prospect when compared to the more directed reflection we tend to offer them?


Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.
Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.

Sharing your thoughts and reflections – always a ‘deep- breath’ moment! The focus here was on sharing the feelings and thoughts about doing the activity rather than sharing whatever you had produced. Again, process rather than output. Lots of people did share what they had produced, however, and I found that sharing very affecting.

You could share via a project space on the 64 million artists website, or via social media. Mostly I engaged via Twitter, and as the month progressed I felt a real sense of community developing.

I have been reading and thinking a lot recently about student self-efficacy and resilience. And I keep returning to a piece of work that Simon Cassidy wrote about on the HEA learning and teaching blog. Specifically, the issue that students who are more resilient for themselves also have the potential to support the development of other students’ self-efficacy and, as a result, their resilience. As Simon points out, this has encouraging implications for peer-led learning and mentoring.

Again, there is a tendency to formalise this type of learning and mentoring, but is there space for a much more fluid engagement in a learning community? One of the things that struck me about the January Challengers that shared via Twitter was just what a diverse bunch we were. In most instances the only connection was participating in the challenge, but that connection still enabled learning from each other, and a supportive and encouraging space.

One aspect I include in workshops I facilitate that focus on providing learning and teaching beyond time and space is the need to provide opportunities for learners, who may never meet face-to-face, to create a social space for peer-support. In my work as  a tutor with the Open University that space was a ‘Cafe’ forum within the module space on the VLE.

Interestingly, during the rounds of introductions that characterise the beginning of the module students seem to want to be able to situate each other both in terms of space and time. Contributions usually started with “Hello my name is xxx and I live in xxx”. Subsequent discussions – discussions where people were continually presenting and (re)presenting their identities – usually included some elements relating to the the contexts in which they were attempting to study.

But these spaces, confined as they were within the VLE and linked to specific modules, were formally informal! Is there the potential for students to come together around a theme like creativity and an aim like completing the challenges to develop a learning space that encourages peer learning and support? Would that space be the richer for having students from different disciplines and at different stages of their academic careers contributing?

More questions than answers there! I’d love to hear your thoughts – or to hear about any similar strategies you already have in place.

So, the January Challenge is done and dusted, but I have signed up for the Friday Challenge – a creative challenge sent to your email box every Friday. Why not join up and join in? http://64millionartists.com/pledge/