Confusion can be beneficial for learning

June 20, 2012 By Susan Guibert, University of Notre Dame

(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

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

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.