Confusion can be beneficial for learning

June 20, 2012 By Susan Guibert

(Medical Xpress) -- Most of us assume that confidence and certainty are preferred over uncertainty and bewilderment when it comes to learning complex information. 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.

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal and Instruction.

Notre Dame psychologist and computer scientist D’Mello, whose research areas include artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and the learning sciences, together with Art Graesser of the University of Memphis, collaborated on the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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.

In a series of experiments, subjects learned scientific reasoning concepts through interactions with computer-animated agents playing the roles of a tutor and a peer learner. The animated agents and the subject engaged in interactive conversations where they collaboratively discussed the merits of sample research studies that were flawed in one critical aspect. For example, one hypothetical case study touted the merits of a diet pill, but was flawed because it did not include an appropriate control group. Confusion was induced by manipulating the information the subjects received so that the animated agents sometimes disagreed with each other and expressed contradictory or incorrect information. The agents then asked subjects to decide which opinion had more scientific merit, thereby putting the subject in the hot spot of having to make a decision with incomplete and sometimes contradictory information.

In addition to the confusion and triggered by the contradictions, subjects who were confused scored higher on a difficult post-test and could more successfully identify flaws in new case studies.

“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.

“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 , 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.”

According to D’Mello, the next step in this body of research is to apply these methods to some of the more traditional domains such as physics, where misconceptions are common.

Explore further: Learning and remembering linked to holding material in hands, new research shows

Related Stories

Learning and remembering linked to holding material in hands, new research shows

September 23, 2011
New research from the University of Notre Dame shows that people’s ability to learn and remember information depends on what they do with their hands while they are learning.

How to get a good night's sleep: Earplugs in the intensive care unit ward off confusion

May 4, 2012
Patients in an intensive care unit (ICU) often become confused or delirious soon after, or within a few days of, admittance to the ICU. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Critical Care shows that ...

Recommended for you

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Study links brain inflammation to suicidal thinking in depression

September 21, 2017
Patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have increased brain levels of a marker of microglial activation, a sign of inflammation, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry by researchers at the University of ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

Alcohol use affects levels of cholesterol regulator through epigenetics

September 20, 2017
In an analysis of the epigenomes of people and mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institutes of Health report that drinking alcohol may induce changes to a cholesterol-regulating gene.

Self-control may not diminish throughout the day

September 20, 2017
After a long day of work and carefully watching what you eat, you might expect your self-control to slip a little by kicking back and cracking open a bag of potato chips.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.