Research shows confusion can lead to better understanding – but it must be introduced with care, writes Harry Fletcher-Wood

We rarely set out to confuse our students – but perhaps we should. Recent research suggests that carefully inducing a little confusion can encourage students to think harder about conflicting ideas, helping them learn.

For example, one experiment asked students to study scientific concepts with two virtual characters: a teacher and a peer. Sometimes, these characters disagreed: one introduced incorrect information about the concept, and the learner was invited to give their opinion. These disagreements caused confusion: immediately afterwards, students scored worse on knowledge tests for concepts about which the characters had disagreed. But subsequent tests showed that their confusion had helped: they recalled more, and were able to apply it better.

Confusion seems to be another form of desirable difficulty (something I’ve discussed previously); it forces students to attend to the details and to process them more carefully. As the authors put it: “Confusion resolution requires the individual to stop, think, engage in careful deliberation, problem solve and revise their existing mental models.” Such desirable difficulties, they add, “inspire greater depth of processing during training, more durable memory representations and more successful retrieval”.

Another study suggests that if we want to induce confusion, we should focus on student misconceptions. Researchers tested whether it was better to give a clear explanation of a scientific concept, to debate misconceptions (as in the study above) or to describe why those misconceptions were problematic. They found that students learned more when misconceptions were debated, or discussed explicitly, than when they received a straightforward explanation (which did not discuss misconceptions).

This seems counter-intuitive: debates and more complicated explanations took longer, and added cognitive load by including additional details, words and diagrams. But the costs were worth it: “The addition of incorrect information… was essential for students.” One of the researchers built on this work by creating a series of videos that explore misconceptions about science, using them to improve scientific understanding. For example, here’s his video about where trees get their mass.

An obvious concern is that inducing confusion may raise misconceptions students hadn’t thought of

An obvious concern is that inducing confusion may hinder students’ learning, raising misconceptions they hadn’t thought of. But a third study offers some reassurance. Students listened to a short lecture, then answered a multiple-choice question about it. If most students got it right, the teacher moved on; if most got it wrong, they explained again. But if students were split, they were asked to discuss their answer with peers. The risk is that a student who is vocal, persuasive and wrong could mislead their peers. The researchers asked follow-up questions to check.

What they found is that, provided a good proportion of students have the right answer initially (around half), spending time considering wrong answers does not increase confusion: “After discussion, the number of students who give the correct answer [to that question] increases substantially” and “the vast majority of students who revise their answers during discussion change from an incorrect answer to the correct answer”. Moreover, these discussions meant students learned more, both immediately and subsequently, and listening to them offered the teacher a valuable sense of “what goes on in their minds”.

As the authors of the first study noted, “common wisdom holds that confusion should be avoided during learning and rapidly resolved if and when it arises”. And yet “confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause individuals to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion”. So while confusion is not a goal, it can be a tool to encourage deeper processing.

This doesn’t mean creating lasting confusion: students should leave the lesson clear about the right answer. Nor would we expect students to resolve their confusion unsupported. The point is rather that we don’t need to avoid confusion entirely: in moderation, it may help students to make sense of ideas, and better recall them.

We might plan to induce a little confusion by introducing possible misconceptions and asking students to evaluate them. And we might use confusion we haven’t planned for, boosting students’ understanding by keeping them confused, and keeping them thinking.