Frustration and desirable difficulties

I find it only a little ironic that some of my most recent research tasks include devising interventions for GIFT (Generalized Intelligent Framework for Tutoring) based on the affect frustration, important when one considers how frustration is negatively correlated to learning gains. Post the heyday of Behaviorist research, Amsel (1992) proposed a theory of frustration as it relates to learning. In this theory, he identified how frustration in achieving a goal can be overcome in partial reinforcement extinction conditions when the outward manifestation of conflict disappears after overcoming emotional conflict in circumstances and the subject reengages in approaching a goal even in the presence of anticipated frustration. One idea in regards to devising an intervention to overcome frustration is in providing the frustrated learner with a meaningful factoid that provides information that should motivate the learner to reengage with mastering their goal task, encouraging the learner to push through frustration and reengage with achieving their goal.

While the Behaviorist approach to learning has fallen out of favor amongst educational psychologists, what’s old is what’s new in Bjork’s theory of desirable difficulties (1994). Bjork has demonstrated that certain difficult training conditions that would seem to impede performance actually yield more significant benefits than easier training conditions. The objective in this condition is not to ameliorate the frustration of the learner through reducing the level of difficulty in a task, but rather support conditions that would have the learner push through the difficulties in achieving their goal contributing to greater long-term learning.  Think of weight lifting to build muscle, and you’ll get the general drift.

I suppose the layman’s interpretation of these two approaches is essentially what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And so in these frustrating times, here’s a little factoid to keep you warm at night: Keep Calm and Drink Scotch (we will find our way).