Using 7taps to implement desirable difficulties in microlearning

An educator and a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her research focus is microlearning and cognitive psychology.

The context

Desirable difficulties are powerful learning tools that are often overlooked by instructional designers and learning & development professionals. The reason for this oversight is that applying desirable difficulties can be perceived as challenging and counterintuitive. However, it is important to realize that employing these techniques can result in lasting knowledge retention.

In this article, our goal is to inspire you to embrace the concept of desirable difficulties and maximize their potential by utilizing the 7taps Microlearning platform.

Defining the terms

Desirable difficulties” is a term coined in 1994 by Prof. Robert A. Bjork. In simple terms, desirable difficulties refer to problems that are intentionally incorporated into the learning process. By making learners think deeper and work harder, we help them understand the material better and retain more information.

The term “Learning” refers to the lasting changes in behavior or knowledge that help you remember and apply what you have learned. As Kirschner et al. (2006) state, learning is the change in one’s long-term memory.

The term “Performance” refers to the act of showing what you have learned or can do in a specific area. It is something that can be seen and measured right after you have learned or practiced something. Performance is not a long-term indicator of your abilities because it can be easily forgotten (Neelen & Kirschner, 2023). Think of cramming for a test and then forgetting the information shortly after.

☝️ Employee performance is often used as a way to evaluate learning. However, one-time performance and long-term learning are not the same thing.
Prof. Robert A. Bjork explains what desirable difficulties in learning are.

How our memory works: storage and retrieval

Bjork and Bjork have come up with a theory called the New Theory of Disuse, which says there are 2 factors that affect the strength of our memory: storage strength and retrieval strength.

Storage strength relates to the permanence and stability of a memory in your long-term memory. It's how well the information is encoded and stored during the learning process.

Retrieval strength refers to how easily you can retrieve information from your memory when you need it. Our memory’s retrieval strength is demonstrated by our performance.

☝️ And here's the problem: if learners don't use or reinforce their memory often, its strength can weaken over time. This can have a negative impact on performance.
Process of memory.

How to incorporate desirable difficulties into a training program

To enhance learners' memory, we should focus on two crucial aspects: helping them efficiently store information and facilitating its easy retrieval when necessary. This is where desirable difficulties come into play.

Here are five examples of desirable difficulties that you can implement when designing training materials to improve your learners' memory and job performance:

  • Spaced Learning: spread out learning over time instead of doing it all at once.
  • Retrieval practice: test people on what they've learned.
  • Interleaving: mix up different yet related topics or skills instead of practicing just one thing for a long time.
  • Contextual interference: change the context in which the knowledge/skill needs to be applied.
  • Reduced feedback: over time provide less immediate and/or frequent feedback, so the learner has to take on a more independent role.

By designing training in a way that requires learners to actively struggle, make decisions, and recall information from memory, you can help them develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter and improve problem-solving skills.

☝️ Find the balance between challenge and attainability. When things are too difficult, learners may get discouraged. When things are too easy, they may grasp the material superficially.

How to implement desirable difficulties in microlearning

7taps, a free mobile microlearning platform, is well-positioned to allow learning designers to integrate desirable difficulties in learning design process. Here are some ideas you can use to create more effective microlearning experiences:

  • Spaced practice: design a series of short learning modules spread out over days or weeks. It's called a 7taps Learning Path, which allows for better knowledge retention.
  • Interleaving: create a Learning Path that includes a series of mini-courses covering various related topics. This approach will enhance learning and promote more advanced thinking skills.
  • Retrieval practice: embed quizzes, forms, polls, and short-answer type questions within 7taps content to actively recall information from learners’ memory. This will strengthen long-term retention.
  • Retrieval practice + interleaving: within one mini-course, ask questions on different, yet related topics. For example, if the training module is focused on giving feedback, you can combine questions related to leadership styles, as well as how to assign tasks.
  • Retrieval practice + spaced practice: start the new 7taps mini-course with a low-stakes or zero-stakes quiz on the topic covered in the previous course. Once the quiz is finished, give the opportunity to review the content from that mini-course, or highlight the key points.
Mike Taylor explains what spaced learning is and how to launch a Learning Path in 7taps in seconds.


Incorporating desirable difficulties into your training programs can greatly enhance learning outcomes. By introducing challenges and obstacles, we encourage deeper engagement and cognitive effort, leading to better retention and application of knowledge.

Utilizing 7taps Microlearning can facilitate the integration of this approach, providing a user-friendly platform to create engaging mobile-first training modules.

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