How Confusion Facilitates Learning

Last week a study made the rounds that showed how even after learning what’s correct, people never truly forget the misconceptions they have. The finding leads to an important follow up question: If these naive pieces of knowledge have a constant presence in our minds, what are the real-world implications for learning?

One interesting idea is that learning will be improved by things that help suppress our prior knowledge, and one thing that may accomplish this is confusion. During moments of confusion everything that’s in your head is insufficient to solve your problem. It’s a sign that whatever your existing beliefs and knowledge are, they’re not good enough. If confusion thus leads us to temporarily cling less strongly to whatever is already in our brains, might it actually help learning? The research suggests that it does.

We tested key predictions of a theoretical model positing that confusion, which accompanies a state of cognitive disequilibrium that is triggered by contradictions, conflicts, anomalies, erroneous information, and other discrepant events, can be beneficial to learning if appropriately induced, regulated, and resolved….Confusion was experimentally induced via a contradictory-information manipulation involving the animated agents expressing incorrect and/or contradictory opinions and asking the (human) learners to decide which opinion had more scientific merit…Whereas the contradictions had no effect on learning when learners were not confused by the manipulations, performance on multiple-choice posttests and on transfer tests was substantially higher when the contradictions were successful in confusing learners.

The official explanation for why this occurs is called the “Facilitative Confusion Hypothesis” — the idea is that when we’re confused, we’re more motivated to stay focused and comprehend information at a deep level in order to resolve the confusion. It seems likely that a piece of this is an increased willingness to suppress or weaken previously held beliefs.

Here’s a thought exercise. Imagine somebody has figured out a legitimate way to shoot a fireball out of his palm, and even though you’re skeptical, he decides to teach it to you. Now imagine the exact same situation, but right before the person begins the lesson, you witness a man cross the street by levitating over traffic. In the second scenario, won’t you be more receptive to abandoning prior beliefs about fireball shooting? Won’t you be more ready to focus on what you’re about to hear with cognitive flexibility? Almost all learning involves replacing old information with new information. It doesn’t matter if the new information is the name of the 27th U.S. President, the concept of utilitarianism, or the way to shoot fireballs. A general sense of confusion may open the door for the new information by lowering how much we value old information.

The potential benefits of confusion also illustrate the importance of classroom differentiation. The more we learn about learning, the more we discover different motivational constructs that influence people in different ways. It’s bad enough that a single teacher has to teach 30 kids with different knowledge levels. But when each kids has a different ideal level of confusion, the task is even harder. At some point in the next 5-10 years it will become very difficult for a teacher to compete with 30 different computer programs all geared toward individual students.
D’Mello, S., Lehman, B., Pekrun, R. & Graesser, A. (2012). Confusion can be beneficial for learning Learning and Instruction DOI: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2012.05.003


3 Responses to How Confusion Facilitates Learning

  1. Misaki says:

    One upon a time claiming that the earth revolved around the sun could result in death from religious prosecution.

    It can be helpful to remember mistaken opinions as well as correct ones (if “opinion” is the right word to use…). This is especially true when you do not understand why people express an incorrect view of reality.

    Also this is sort of like multiple tests, isn’t it… a badly written multiple test sort of reveals some of the answers even without knowledge of the underlying material. Also like strategies for winning at rock-paper-scissors.

    (Or maybe these are only tangentially related to minor aspects of the study)

  2. JGB says:

    Computers as tutors can never leave the Uncanny Valley (there is good sci-fi pointing this out that is at least 20 years old). Only a small number of tasks in learning can be programmed as well as you claim. For subjects beyond simple things like grammar and math the knowledge and confusion are inherently just a bit fuzzy at best. This social element of learning along with motivation can’t be duplicated by a computer.

    The research on confusion helping learning is great however.

    • erichorowitz says:


      I’m wondering if you could point me in the direction of some evidence to support your point. I think a lot of evidence actually supports the fact that computers are a good substitute, not just for a one-teacher, 25-students model, but when it comes to 1-on-1 instruction (e.g. I agree that there are necessary social elements, but a teacher lecturing in front of a class doesn’t always include them. Finally, I think it’s generally unwise to make proclamations about what computers will or won’t be able to do in the future.

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