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The Fragile Dynamic Between Confusion and Learning

posted Sep 1, 2014, 12:51 AM by HSD Principal

In case you missed Steve Taylor's email, here's an article worth contemplating.


    In this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich explores the paradox that unclear teaching sometimes gets better results than clear teaching. Here’s the experiment that piqued his interest. Ten years ago, Derek Muller, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney in Australia, made two instructional videos and showed them to students:

-   The first video featured an actor explaining a basic physics concept using drawings and animations.

-   The second video had two actors playing the part of a tutor and a student. The student struggled to understand the concept, and the tutor asked leading questions but didn’t give clear answers. After some back-and-forth, the student got it right.

Students who watched the two videos said the first one was clear, concise, and easy to understand and the second was confusing.

            But when students were tested on their understanding of the concept covered in the videos, students who watched the first one were more confident that they had learned from it but students who watched the second one actually learned more! How could an unclear instructional video teach more?

            Muller believes that when students get a clear presentation of the correct information, five things happen:

-   They think they know it.

-   They don’t pay close attention.

-   They don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking.

-   They don’t learn a thing.

-   They get more confident in what they thought before.

Counterintuitively, a little confusion can prompt students to think harder and improve their understanding of complex matters. (For simple facts and memorization, clear, simple explanations are appropriate.)

            “In other words,” says Kolowich, “if teachers want students to learn really important stuff, like comprehending difficult texts and modeling complex systems, they should put their students in confusing situations.” They should also not be too enamored of slick, cohesive lectures and tutorials (a word to the wise for teachers and professors who are creating videos for their “flipped” classrooms). “One can imagine a world,” say Sidney D’Mello (University of Notre Dame) and Arthur Graesser (University of Memphis), “where interventions that expose misconceptions might be cherished instead of chastised, complexity might be a valuable substitute for clarity, and less cohesive texts and lectures might replace the polished information deliveries of textbooks and formal lectures.”

But “confusing” teaching has to be handled skillfully. “Confusing works, except when it doesn’t,” he says. “Confusing students on purpose is more like loading the elastic of a slingshot: It creates tension that can propel them into higher altitudes of understanding; pull too far, though, and the elastic will snap.” And some students will snap sooner than others. The trick is tracking and moderating the confusion and knowing when students need to be rescued from their confusion – but that’s especially difficult when explaining things to large groups.


“Confuse Students to Help Them Learn” by Steve Kolowich in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 14, 2014,


Except taken from Marshall Memo 550, September 1, 2014