Teaching Thursday: Teaching with Confusion

I had another post all thought out and ready to go this morning, when I read this short article on the Chronicle of Higher Education site this morning. The article documents the research of Derek Muller, an Australian researcher, who has studied how confusion helps students learn. Muller argued that straight forward, clear, and concise explanations of difficult problems actually work against student learning as it tends to reinforce preconceived notions and encourage students to move on before they have completely grasped the ideas and their implications. 

To infuse his lectures with confusion, Muller created a dialogues in which two actors debate a point. Apparently, the effect of this is confusing, but the results demonstrated both greater retention and comprehension. These ideas are so cool, Muller has a TEDx video.

The idea that confusion is somehow a key ingredient to learning has gained increased traction lately. One of my favorite little studies is one in Cognition that shows that by simply using a less legible font, we can increase retention (pdf). The authors of this article argue that the feeling of confusion called disfluency is important for deeper learning. 

I think that some of these articles relate to my Teaching Thursday post from last week on gyrocopter professors. These professors feel compelled by a whole raft of institutional and social pressures to hand feed students information both about the structure of the course and its content. The pressures to make everything clear – even things that can’t be clarified without losing inherent dissonance and complexity – have resulted in a simplification of the teaching and learning process and content.  

Over the past few years, I have unknowingly, but intentionally, sowing a certain amount of confusion in my classes and despite pressures to present the course and its content as yielding clearly stated objectives. To be clear, I do value student learning and directed learning. If students in my history course, for example, concluded that we have nothing to learn from antiquity or that history cannot help us understand our work in a more sympathetic way, I’d be disappointed and adjust the class to provide the necessary structure to guide the students to conclusions that I find consistent with my view of the discipline and the world.

At the same time, I’ve used open-ended assignments with only the most superficial explanations as standard assignments in my upper level and graduate history courses. The only thing that I require is that these assignments have a thesis and use primary sources to support an argument. The arguments and character of the papers is up to the students to decide. There are no leading questions, rubrics, or templates to structure the papers. 

Graduate Historiography Paper. Over the course of the semester, you have maintained journals based on our weekly reading.  Using these journals as a “primary source” present an argument related to your understanding of historiography or historical epistemology.  

Undergraduate Source Paper: Using one or more of the primary sources from class, present a critical argument (i.e. a thesis supported by primary source evidence) related to the history of Byzantium. 

These rather open-ended assignments invariably cause consternation, if not genuine confusion, but they also push students to think as much about what makes a good historical argument (in a generalized way) as specific arguments associated with the subject matter in the class. To prevent despair, I assure my classes that the discomfort they feel is, in fact, what it feels like to learn. As most readers of this blog know, real learning is pain and student resistance is often a good indicator of learning taking place

The challenge from a pedagogical perspective is that so much of our students’ university experience has become defined by rubrics, templates, and well-defined learning goals ensures that the confusion threshold in the classroom is very low. This either makes it easier to create the disfluency necessary for deep learning or suggests that some of the basic mechanisms of higher education run counter to its most cherished goals.  


  1. While not conscious, I wonder if I used to do similar by distributing a comprehensive final exam question on the first day of Western Civ I. At first students saw it as a gift. Then a curse, because it was a goal, but I did not tell them how to get there, nor how to select from a semester’s worth of material to create a cogent answer. There was definite cycle of joy then anger/despair then, well, the outcome depended on the student. Some joy, some despair, some resignation.


  2. College was quite confusing enough, thank you; and with age everything that was once simple is more and more confusing. Hey, who are / were the world’s bad guys anyway? I could almost miss Hitler.


  3. Is “confusion” really the right word? It seems to me that it’s not. If I understand the Chronicle article correctly, he’s trying to get students to think through concepts rather than having the concepts explained. I mean, it’s not like confusion for its own sake is a good in teaching. A related point is that I see no connection between the content of the Chronicle article and the use of grading rubrics, since Muller is talking about teaching educational content.


  4. Dimitri,

    I like the term disfluency!

    I think rubrics and templates, when circulated to students before an assignment, do the same thing as presenting a complex idea as a series of bullet points especially in the humanities where we teach the art of written argument as much as particular ideas or facts.

    Rubrics tend to reduce the complexity of an integrated concept such as writing a long-form argument to a series of simple(r) tasks (which are then evaluated or rewarded). Of course, rubrics can promote the understanding of complexity and, in some ways, my insistence that my students’ papers have a thesis and evidence is a rubric, but I’m clearly not referring to these broad guidelines, but the more detailed variety.



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