Confusion and uncertainty in the classroom

Can being confused actually be a beneficial part of the learning process? That's one of the questions being explored by researchers at the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC).

This project brings together researchers from The University of Melbourne, Macquarie University, Curtain University and the Australian Council for Educational Research to study how confusion can assist learning in a digital environment.

Associate Professor Jason Lodge from the University of Queensland is driving this project and has been a major contributor, and he says there are several reasons why the team decided to delve into this issue.

‘One of the reasons we think confusion is important is because often the kinds of mental structures and schemas that we have, particularly around concepts, often need to be partly undone so that they can be corrected,' he says.

‘It's sort of like you have to experience this sort of disequilibrium between what you think you know and what kind of established understanding of what something might be,' he adds.

The research to date has shown that being confused cues students into changing their learning strategies to overcome impasses as they learn new concepts or misconceptions.

Lodge says his SLRC colleagues Professor Gregor Kennedy from the University of Melbourne and Professor Lori Lockyer from University of Technology Sydney were the two who initially decided to explore the idea that confusion is really common. He says that it's an issue that researchers don't necessarily know a lot about, despite there being some work being done over in the United States.

‘There's been a group of researchers over there that have been looking at what happens when people get stuck particularly when they're working through adaptive learning environments and confusion was one of the things that they were seeing quite a bit with the students that they were working with,' he shares.

‘It sort of seems like there's a groundswell, globally, of people looking at confusion as part of a learning process and perhaps the way that we've thought about it, traditionally, has not necessarily been all that useful. I think a lot of people just assume confusion is absolutely a bad thing as a part of a learning process and to be avoided at all costs, but it appears to be a lot more complicated than that and that's why I think people are sort of interested in it.'

Conducting the research

Using a combination of research techniques including eye tracking, video recording and an electroencephalogram (EEG), the team examined the role of confusion in various digital environments.

‘So, we've done some research with some really fundamental processes and looking at EEGs and what's actually happening in people's brains while they're getting confused and getting feedback and overcoming misconceptions,' Lodge says.

‘A big part of this was to try and think about this core problem of confusion and how it might be beneficial or not in a learning process and look at it from multiple different methodological perspectives. That was a deliberate part of the way that it was set up.'

Lodge says part of the reason for looking at confusion in a digital environment is that students are increasingly doing knowledge acquisition-type work in digital environments through various simulations, videos and similar projects ­– and this is something researchers need to develop a better understanding of.

‘The second reason is that we feel that it is really important, is that when you've got a classroom of students in there, it's generally pretty easy to tell when they're confused because the confusion face is quite obvious,' he begins.

‘When you've got kids that are confused, they're scratching their temples, they're screwing their face up and it's really quite obvious, whereas in a digital environment, when you don't have that same capacity to be able to detect those sorts of facial expressions, it can be quite common for students to get stuck and confused about something and for there not to be a teacher to be able to intervene.

‘So, it does cause quite a bit of a different problem when you don't have that same sort of nuanced intervention that a teacher can provide in a live classroom.'

The role of student confidence

This research also explored the association between students' confidence and the challenge they experience while undertaking learning tasks.

‘Confidence is an interesting one,' Lodge says, ‘we didn't initially think of that as being a critical variable, but fairly quickly it became obvious that it was.

‘For example, if you've got a student who is highly confident about what they think they know, then they might attempt to plough ahead with learning despite the fact that they may have the wrong conception about something.'

Lodge says the data shows that there is a tendency for some students to be overconfident and they therefore don't experience enough of a disequilibrium or impasse in the learning process.

‘So, they don't actually change the way that they think about whatever the conception is, they sort of miss the point because they're overconfident and ploughing through it,' he says. ‘Whereas, obviously the other side of it is if you've got students who are not confident enough or don't have enough self-efficacy to get through it, then when they reach an impasse, it might just lead them to get frustrated and give up.'

The benefits for educators

According to Lodge, there are many ways that teachers can allow for more uncertainty and challenging situations in their classrooms, and supporting students to be okay with it is an important first step.

‘I think a big part of this is to move away from this notion that confusion is to be avoided at all costs,' he says.

‘[Instead] create supportive conditions to allow students to go through that process experiencing disequilibrium and potentially finding that confusing, but at the same time, working with the students to understand that that's a perfectly normal part of learning when you're learning really complicated things. It really is an important cue to signal that you might need to think about whatever it is that you're doing in a slightly different way.'

While the research into this area is ongoing, Lodge says the results to date are something he's found infinitely useful in his own teaching.

‘Part of this is working with the teachers to help them to create those conditions to allow for that, but also to help them to help the students to understand that it's perfectly normal to find something difficult and confusing and that actually might be quite an important part of the process of updating the way they think about something,' he says.

Note: This article was updated on 12 April to clarify Associate Professor Jason Lodge's role on the project and to state that Professor Lori Lockyer is from University of Technology Sydney.

As a teacher, how can you allow for more uncertainty in your classroom? How will you know if you’ve been successful in achieving this?

Associate Professor Jason Lodge says that teachers need to move away from the notion that confusion is to be avoided at all costs. How could you communicate this message with students?