The benefit of being confused

Research suggests confusion and learning are related

Under the right circumstances, confusion seems to have an upside: It may help us learn, Tania Lombrozo writes for NPR's "Cosmos & Culture." 

Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says there is strong evidence that confusion is related to learning.

For instance, in one study researchers recorded the emotions displayed by participants as they learned computer skills using an automated tutoring system. That study found "that learners who spent a greater proportion of the lessons in a state of confusion exhibited significantly greater gains in learning," Lombrozo says.

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Another study had participants listen to a dialogue on experimental design that included misstatements and contradictions. Later, participants answered questions on their experience and took a test. Those who reported being confused actually did a better job understanding the key points of the dialogue.

How confusion helps

Lombrozo says researchers are not sure how confusion relates to learning, but notes there are two leading theories:

  • That confusion is not beneficial on its own but is "a marker that an important cognitive process has taken place," such as noticing inconsistencies; and
  • That confusion is a beneficial process that "motivates the learner to reconcile an inconsistency or remedy some deficit."

However, confusion is not always helpful, Lombrozo says. "Sometimes a textbook is truly terrible, or a teacher impossible to understand."

Lobrozo says that for confusion to be useful, it has to relate to something you are trying to learn and you must have the resources available to overcome the confusion. None of this, she says, is likely to come as a surprise to scientists and children, who are routinely confused by the world around them and must learn to make progress.

She points to an essay in the Journal of Cell Science by Martin Schwartz on engaging with hard scientific questions to illustrate the point: "If we don't feel stupid," Schwartz writes, "it means we're not really trying" (Lombrozo, "Cosmos & Culture," NPR, 12/14).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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