Does confusion mean real learning?

An interesting concept that I came across the other day relates to how we can recognise real learning.  It’s associated with the idea of pseudoteaching that I brought up a couple of weeks ago, where both students and teachers feel like real learning is taking place but in reality that’s far from the truth.

The idea was that confusion is one way of recognising whether learning has been authentic and will be long-lasting.  This idea, which I’m paraphrasing, was raised by Veritasium, a guy at Sydney Uni doing some fantastic work on creating authentic learning through innovative physics multimedia.  You can check out his blog here.  His PhD research centred around measuring the effect that physics videos have on authentic learning.  He created two main types of videos, those that focused purely on clear explanation and exposition and those that addressed some common student misconceptions by creating a dialogue between two ‘students’.  To measure how much the students had learned, he gave them a test both before and after watching the videos.

When asked what they thought about the videos they watched, students considered the expository videos to be ‘clear and concise’, whereas they rated the dialogue videos as ‘confusing’.  However, in their post-tests the students who watched the ‘confusing’ videos had almost doubled their scores, whereas the scores of those students that watched the ‘clear and concise’ videos barely changed.  But why the counter-intuitive result?

Students who had misconceptions about a particular topic tended to have them affirmed by the expository videos, even if what was being said actually contradicted them.  This affirmation made students feel like they already knew the material and ‘switched off’ without realising that they had misunderstood it all along.  However, when those misconceptions were directly addressed (as in the dialogue videos) the students became confused, but that allowed them to process the information and retain it more successfully.  In essence, the idea seems to be that confusion shows that students have put in more mental effort, which is one of the defining factors of meaningful learning.  Without the mental effort, students have little opportunity to retain what they are learning – which is the point of learning after all.

Now I wouldn’t necessarily advocate purposely confusing students, as that could backfire if not done carefully.  But introducing confusion and logical inconsistencies seems to me to be a useful way of inspiring students to solve problems and tackle challenges.  If done in a way that makes them want to work out the answer, rather than to make them just get frustrated, then they can better own their learning.

2 responses to “Does confusion mean real learning?

  1. Great post. I think it is the pursuit of confusion that is often associated with learning; and the avoidance of confusion that is often associated with pseud0-learning. This avoidance can be done by students; but it can also be done by teachers who don’t allow wrong ideas enough space to live and breathe in the classroom.

    • Thanks Brian! I agree that if we don’t allow some confusion in the classroom then we teach students that being confused is something to avoid at all costs. We need to create a classroom environment in which confusion is an opportunity to delve more deeply and have some real learning.

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