It is OK to be confused

By Sam Graham, LSU

This is Sam’s article that appeared in Thanh Nien News and Vietweek News on 7/12/2012.

University can be a scary place.

There are constant deadlines and never any time to rest and apply what you have already learned. Each class brings new subject material or a new assignment, always pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

New ideas are confusing. This confusion can be terrifying, stressful and demoralising. Most students see it as a sign that things are going badly, and most teachers try to minimise it.

However, confusion is not just a normal part of learning, it is in fact beneficial. It should be tolerated as a part of the learning process and seen as a sign that learning is at least heading in the right direction.

One recent study found that making notes harder to read made students remember more and get higher marks in their course. In six high school classes, students were assigned PowerPoint slides and worksheets with either normal, easy to read type face or in a more difficult font like Haettenscheweiler, Monotype Corsiva or Comic Sans Italicized.

Students who had studied with materials that were more difficult to read did significantly better than those with normal typefaces. The researchers of the study say that with less fluency in reading, students had to concentrate on the material more and thus their learning increased.

Another study found that people were able to remember and analyse information better when the presentation of the material was confusing.

In this study, two groups were shown similar videos with two people describing a flawed scientific experiment. In one group’s video, the two people explained similar and consistent information, while in the other group’s video each person gave contradictory descriptions which aimed to confuse. When each group was asked to analyse the flaws in the study, the ‘confused’ group were more successful.

Confusion made the test subjects listen more closely and try harder to work out what happened in the experiment. This meant that they were able to analyse the information better. They had learned more.

In both of these situations, learning increased only because the confusion led to students thinking about the material more.

If something is easy, even if new, we take mental shortcuts and develop only a shallow understanding. We also expect to remember more when something seems easy. However, we are often terrible judges of our own understanding and easy learning can lead to less effort and review, and thus, paradoxically, less learning.

So what lessons can students learn from this?

Most importantly, it is OK to be confused. You are not stupid! It is normal to not understand everything. Being confused can lead to better understanding later on.

Two years after graduating, I had lunch with one of my old tutors. I told him that I wish I could do my degree again because the first time through I felt like I was always grasping at understanding the material. I felt the courses were foggy and I could only just see enough to fit the knowledge together.

He laughed at me.

“It sounds like the course was just right. If it was easy the first time through you wouldn’t have learned anything!”

After accepting that it is OK to be confused, resolve to work your way through the confusion. Identify exactly what you do not understand and then think, review, read, and talk to others until it makes sense.

Let ideas sit. Sometimes we have an “aha!” moment when we have let an idea sit in our head for a long time and then stopped thinking about it.

To do this, you need to give yourself time to follow up on what is making you confused. Do not leave everything until the last minute or you will not benefit from your confusion. Sometimes you will resolve your confusion when you reach later parts of your studies. Having built a more comprehensive knowledge over time, earlier confusion will often work itself out.

What does it mean for teachers and educators?

It is a dangerous game to intentionally introduce confusion into a course. For a struggling student, or if it is too much, confusion can be frustrating and counterproductive. Intentional introduction of confusion into courses has had limited success in the ‘real world’.

However, aiming first to get students to think about ideas rather than to communicate them in the simplest way possible might be more productive.

Develop an awareness of the difference between students’ confusion that will be productive, which students can work their own way through, and confusion that will just be frustrating and fruitless.

For everyone, we need to accept that learning is sometimes tough work. We need to be tolerant of confusion and build enough resilience to fight our way through it.

As one educational commentator put it, “Confusion is ignorance leaving the brain.”

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4 responses to “It is OK to be confused”

  1. H says :

    Interesting topic! Theoratically, it would be productive to have little confusion in an intersting lecture as it encourages students to do their own research and understanding. Nonetheless, I’m not so sure whether moods and physical conditions affect students’ productivity better than confusion. It is not clear about the temperature, students’ moods and their attitude toward the topic when the experiments were conducted.

  2. Mark Hershey says :

    Interesting article in that it seems to correspond to ideas that other researchers have had about how the mind-brain works in problem solving or learning a skill; even when we are not participating in an activity at the moment, the mind is working out some of the kinks of the problem or skill one was trying to learn before. This is why great insights have often happened in the shower. Or in a dream. Or under an apple tree.

  3. Liz Molyneux says :

    Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow explains the results of these studies very well. Poor presentation forces the brain to switch into slow/ deep thinking mode which is critical and analytical. However, when things appear to be easy, the brain is too lazy to shift into thinking gear and processes information very superficially. So when students complain tat they have a headache from thinking too much, perhaps this should be interpreted positively in that they are indeed engaging in deep thinking which is a mental strain.

  4. LSUvietnam says :

    Thanks for the comments. The last two comments got me thinking of something I wrote for this blog when it was in its previous incarnation (http://lsuvietnam.com/2011/10/26/want-to-remember-dont-skim-100-times/). *Trying* to remember does very, very little, whereas thinking about content without added effort in memorising increases memorisation hugely. The role of confusion in learning seems to draw on this ‘thinking effect’.

    - Sam

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