Most of us assume that confidence and certainty are required for a good and successful learning experience. But a new study led by Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame shows that confusion when learning can be beneficial if it is properly induced, effectively regulated and ultimately resolved. Uncertainty and bewilderment can be beneficial when it comes to learning complex information.

Sidney D’Mello is a psychologist and a computer scientist, whose research areas include artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and the learning sciences. He and Art Graesser of the University of Memphis, collaborated on the study.

We found out about this study from the article “Confusion can be beneficial for learning: study” published by Susan Guibert in University of Notre Dame News.

They 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.

The study consisted of a series of experiments, using subjects who learned scientific reasoning concepts through interactions with computer-animated agents playing the roles of a tutor and a peer learner. It is always better when you learn together with someone else – which in this case was a computer program – and one or both “persons” ask questions about what they learn.

“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,” D’Mello says.

“According to D’Mello, it is not advisable to intentionally confuse students who are struggling or induce confusion during high-stakes learning activities. 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.”

To confirm in part the scientists’ conclusions, here is a quotation by John W. Gardner:
“One of the reasons people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.” John William Gardner, (October 8, 1912–February 16, 2002) was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson.

When you learn it is also important to be able to ask yourself good questions because, according to Lloyd Alexander, “We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” Lloyd Chudley Alexander (January 30, 1924 – May 17, 2007) was a widely influential American author of more than forty books, primarily fantasy novels for children and young adults. His most famous work is The Chronicles of Prydain.


Returning to the study mentioned at the beginning of this post: “It is also important that the students are productively instead of hopelessly confused. By productive confusion, we mean that the source of the confusion is closely linked to the content of the learning session, the student attempts to resolve their confusion, and the learning environment provides help when the student struggles. Furthermore, any misleading information in the form of confusion-induction techniques should be corrected over the course of the learning session, as was done in the present experiments.”

To stress what I said on different occasions, that college needs to teach students how to think, and in connexion with this study’s conclusions, I like to quote John Dewey: “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.” John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform.

Filed under: College needs

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