Difficult Problems

A recent study by Phillips has shown that making accounting problems simple does not help students as much as making those same problems difficult.

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June 15, 2017 – Free MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

For University of Saskatchewan accounting professor Fred Phillips, that was a startling realization. A recent study by Phillips has shown that making accounting problems simple does not help students as much as making those same problems difficult.

“When I first started teaching, I thought my role as a teacher was to take difficult topics and make them easy,” said Phillips, who has been teaching in the Edwards School of Business for the past 20 years. “While there is some immediate value in that, it is fleeting — it degrades in memory over time.”

By making students struggle with problems — introducing designed difficulty into problem solving — Phillips has discovered that students have fared better on topics over the long term.

“When students have to really think and evaluate what they have to do, this desirable difficulty contributes to meaningful learning,” explained Phillips, a recipient of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, the highest teaching honour in Canada.

To gain a better understanding of this concept, Phillips recruited 170 business students to take part in the study outside of class.

One set of students was given a series of accounting problems in successive order, each concept building on the next: essentially they learned “A,” then “B” then “C” in a grouped pattern (think practicing a sequence of problems as AAABBBCCC)

The other group received interleaved problems where A, B and C were presented in a non-grouped order (ABCABCABC). This group did not practice A, B or C in successive order and students took longer to solve the problems.

“The theory is that struggle leads to longer-term connections in memory that won’t degrade as much over time, ” said Phillips.

Immediately following the practice problems, Phillips tested both groups on the concepts. The first group, Phillips explained, could do the problems faster and scored higher (about 8 per cent higher). Phillips tested the students once more, this time a week later. This time the second group came out on top by about 15 per cent. Interestingly enough, the first group’s score dropped significantly compared to the previous scores (a 27 point decline), while the second group’s score dropped on average by only four per cent.

“Desirable difficulty contributes to meaningful learning,” said Phillips, adding that he has hunch that the difference would dissipate with time.

“The real challenge is to help students see the value in struggling, failing and overcoming. It’s challenging for professors as well because we are evaluated by students on how easy we make their learning feel. It’s not intuitive for students or instructors to value learning difficulties. It doesn’t feel good.”

Phillips said he reminds himself “our job is to help students overcome difficulties. We need to think carefully about the hurdles students struggle with and making those hurdles an intentional part of the instructional process. Let students struggle, but be there to help.”

Adapted from sciencedaily.


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Jack Westin
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  1. There is value in failure and struggling, especially in problem solving, as it helps contribute to our long-term knowledge. Teachers have a job in making sure that students undergo the struggle of learning something difficult, but also being reliable in helping them through the struggle.


  2. In accounting challenging problems, where students may struggle or fail to get correct the first time, allows the student to think critically during the problem solving process. This enhances the students understanding of the concepts and long-term memory of the subject.


  3. difficult problems help, struggling = long-term memory


  4. Simple concepts does not help students


  5. Philips uses his research study to advocate that educators should give students difficult rather than easy accounting problems because this leads to better consolidation of learning over time.


  6. ‘desirable difficulties contributes to meaningful learning’ author uses examples of professors’ research.
    difficult problems solving group = lasted longer memory; less reduction on previous test.


  7. Allowing students to struggle increases long-term memory and learning. Teachers should add hurdles during the teaching process to help their students be successful in the long run.


  8. The struggle that students face when doing problems is part of the learning process which leads to longer-term connections in memory that won’t degrade as much over time


  9. Theme: Philips is a proponent for teaching students using difficult problems as the struggle encountered during the l earning process will allow student to better remember their material (stored longer in memory) (central). This is in contrast to the conventional approach of making learning easier. However this approach does not facilitate memory retention (association).
    Tone: informative (real challenge is to help students see the value….need to think carefully about the hurdles) and encouraging (be there to help).


  10. MI: Higher difficulty improves learning. Author tone: Interested, despite not being popular, seeming counterintuitive. Convinced, found support in long term (a week after learning).


  11. Make problems intentionally difficult to learn to improve learning.


  12. Brain and long term memory respond well to more challenging/ difficult teaching techniques.


  13. difficult > simple in terms of help


  14. MIP: difficult problems > simple problems because they lead to meaningful and long term memory. It is challenging to get students to realize the value of struggle.


  15. Overcome difficulties in learning = meaningful learning + long-term memory (Phillips).


  16. MIP
    (1) Difficult > easy
    (2) Difficult = long term gains; easy = good @ first but quickly degrades



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