How We Learn: Confusion Is Good For Learning

10 Aug

Confusion is good for learning. Research has found that confusion creates a powerful drive for the brain to try to understand what is happening. It pushes us to learn “more efficiently, more deeply, more lastingly—as long as it’s properly managed,” according to the NOVA/PBS article The Science of Smart: The Virtues of Confusion. This is supported by Sidney D’Mello, Notre Dame psychologist and computer scientist and Art Graesser, cognitive and learning scientist at University of Memphis. They collaborated on a study (Confusion can be beneficial for learning) that found “that by strategically inducing confusion in a learning session on difficult conceptual topics, people actually learned more effectively and were able to apply their knowledge to new problems.” 

When we are confused we become motivated to look deeper, and search harder for a solution. Having multiple options to resolve a problem allows exploration of solutions, ensuring a deep and broad sense of the issues involved, and a deeper understanding. 

According to D’Mello, “We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion.” Additionally, researched detailed in Affect and learning: An exploratory look into the role of affect in learning with AutoTutor reveals “significant relationships between learning and the affective states of boredom, flow and confusion. The positive correlation between confusion and learning is consistent with a model that assumes that cognitive disequilibrium is one precursor to deep learning.” 

When the brain encounters something new or unusual that contradicts what’s in memory, it focuses more intently, and attempts to explain the difference. In his Los Angeles Times article Human memory: What did <i>you</i> do last Sunday?, Cognitive Neuroscientist Moshe Bar says, “Novelty is the primary, if not the primal, trigger of learning. What we learn, what stays in memory, are novel bits of information about our universe, which enrich the pool of scenarios on which we can later produce predictions.

Are confusion interventions good for all learners and situations? 

Confusion can benefit learning when it’s related to the material, and when there is the support or resources needed to help the learner work through the confusion. Additionally, according to D’Mello and Graesser, “Confusion interventions are best for higher-level learners who want to be challenged with difficult tasks, are willing to risk failure, and who manage negative emotions when they occur.

When used wisely novelty and confusion creates a powerful drive to learn. 

For more on how we learn check out How We Learn: We Remember Emotions

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What is A Learning Journey? Since 1995 I’ve collected an incredible amount of information from learning leaders, educators, scientists, etc. on the topic of learning and development. Consolidating these notes collected from conversations, books, conferences, articles and white papers, and sharing my learning journey as A Learning Journey made sense. Thus the series was born. I hope you find the information valuable.

Craig Dadoly

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