Meet the Bjorks: The research legacy teachers must know

All teachers should know about this pioneering pair of academics whose research since the 1970s has shaped many key areas of pedagogical thinking

Kate Jones

Busting the education myth that pupils are either left-brained or right-brained

For anyone studying education theory and practice, it is only a matter of time before the names Professors Robert and Elizabeth Bjork appear.

Since 1974, they have carried out groundbreaking educational research, specialising in cognitive psychology but touching on numerous other areas, too, at the University California, Los Angeles (UCLA) – work that continues to this day.

Who are Robert and Elizabeth Bjork?

Robert “Bob” Bjork is a world-leading expert in memory and Elizabeth Bjork was awarded UCLA’s prestigious “distinguished teacher award”.

The Bjorks have worked with a wide range of academics and students in their field, and their research findings about memory have had significant implications for teachers around the world.

Although a recent report by the Education Endowment Foundation into the use of cognitive science approaches in the classroom has recently cast doubt on the universal effectiveness of applying research in this area in schools, the sheer reach and impact of the Bjorks’ work cannot be underestimated.

Understanding the key elements of their research is still important for any teacher looking to build their knowledge around the art and science of pedagogy.

While the elements discussed below aren’t solely attributed to the Bjorks, the pair have certainly played a leading and very significant role in all of these fields. 

Below are five key areas where the Bjorks have helped to shape the way teachers teach and how we view learning.

1. Learning versus performance

The distinction between learning and performance has been a real game-changer in terms of understanding how we learn and this has been written about extensively by the Bjorks, based on their research findings.

They argue that what we can measure during the instruction process is performance – that is, whether to-be-learned knowledge or skills can be produced during the instruction phase itself

Such performance may be dependent, though, on recency and cues that are present during the instruction phase, but are unlikely to be present at a later time in a different context, when some skill or knowledge is needed. 

As teachers, we need to revisit the content at a later date to see what students can recall from their long-term memory because actual learning constitutes a change in a student’s long-term memory and capability (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006).

Students and teachers alike need to be aware that learning is what matters and performance during instruction can be misleading. 

2. Desirable difficulties

This is a phrase coined by the Bjorks to describe the level of difficulty we should provide our students.

A desirable difficulty is a level of difficulty or challenge that poses challenges but can be overcome by a student, given that student’s current knowledge. 

Robert Bjork has used a video-gaming analogy to illustrate that students can embrace, not avoid, difficulties when they feel they can overcome those difficulties.

Level 1 in such games is often quite easy, providing the gamer with a taste of success and a boost of motivation to keep going, but the levels will gradually increase in difficulty.

Such increased challenge is a good example of a desirable difficulty as it can be achieved through increased effort and determination. If the challenge did not increase, it would be too easy and become pointless.

But if the challenge is too tough, it can be demoralising, leading the gamer to abandon the game.

There is a range of things teachers and students can do to create difficulties that are desirable, including spaced retrieval practice (retrieval practice spread out over time instead of cramming or “massed practice”), interleaving the study or practice of materials to be learned, and even studying in different locations.

The Bjorks encourage us to make things hard on ourselves “but in a good way”.

3. Forgetting is a friend of learning

Forgetting has been viewed as the enemy of teaching and learning.

A lesson might apparently go very well, with students seeming to demonstrate a good understanding, but later, key concepts and information cannot be recalled, much to the frustration of both the teacher and student (again, learning versus performance).

Teachers and students actually need to embrace forgetting, allow for some time for forgetting to occur (but not too long) and then carry out retrieval practice, which is the act of recalling information from long-term memory.

As Robert Bjork has stated, “using your memory shapes your memoryWhat is recalled becomes more “recallable” in the future, whereas information in competition with that information becomes less recallable. 

The Bjorks argue that learning happens over time, that forgetting is a friend of learning and that retrieval practice, both inside and outside of the classroom, can lead to more efficient and effective teaching and learning.

4. New Theory of Disuse

A century ago, the dominant view among educational researchers was that knowledge and skills, without being accessed, fade from memory like footprints in the sand.

In their New Theory of Disuse (1992), the Bjorks argue that such knowledge or skills actually remain in memory but gradually become non-recallable.

They distinguish between the retrieval strength of information in memory – that is, how accessible that information is in the current context – versus its storage strength, that is how inter-associated or how linked up it is with related knowledge.

This distinction is essential for teachers to recognise because information a student cannot recall may, in fact, exist in that student’s memory, perhaps even with high storage strength, meaning that it can be activated, given the right cues.

Storage strength does not decrease (unless there has been physical damage to the brain). If information can be remembered well and readily then both storage and retrieval strength are high.

There may be times where information is secure in memory, for example a childhood telephone number, but it is slow to access because the retrieval strength is low.

5. How we learn versus how we think we learn

Much has been written about how we learn, versus how we think we learn, by the Bjorks and other leading academics, including Professor John Dunlosky and Professor Henry Roediger, to name a few. But misconceptions and myths surrounding learning and memory remain prevalent.

Students often use ineffective strategies to revise as they believe those strategies are how they learn best. The research supporting this generalisation is overwhelming.

The most popular strategies among students – re-reading, highlighting and underlining, for example – are not as effective as spaced retrieval practice and interleaving, but they give students a sense of familiarity and a (false) sense of confidence.

Retrieval practice, on the other hand, reveals to learners what they can and cannot recall and where the gaps are in their knowledge.

Quizzing requires more mental effort than re-reading but it is worth the effort invested. Students need to embrace, not avoid, desirable difficulties.

Kate Jones is head of history at The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi and author of Love To Teach, Retrieval Practice and Retrieval Practice 2. You can follow her on Twitter @KateJones_teach. The author thanks Professors Robert and Elizabeth Bjork for checking the accuracy of this article

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