Confusion is educational, if temporary

Clarity may not be educational, writes Nate Kornell on Miller-McCune. People learn more when they have to work at it, research shows.

Researchers Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Erikka B. Vaughan convinced a group of high school teachers to change their PowerPoint fonts to hard-to-read fonts such as Monotype Corsiva and Hattenschweiler for one section, while using normal fonts for the other. Students taught with the less-clear fonts did better on exams than the control group.

Ugly fonts are an example of “desirable difficulties,” learning techniques that make us struggle but help us learn, Kornell writes.

Spacing study sessions also can be valuable. It gives students time to forget, struggle to remember and learn.

Taking tests is another desirable difficulty. People learn more when they’re asked to come up with information themselves rather than when they’re told the information. This may seem somewhat intuitive. But students even benefit from being asked test questions that they can’t answer (if they’re subsequently told the answer)! Again, it’s about the struggle.

While it’s OK for a teacher to confuse students, “leaving them confused is an absolutely terrible idea,” Kornell writes.

Confusion can lead to deeper understanding but only if it is followed by clarification. Reach a solution, or better yet, guide your students so they can reach it themselves.

Of course, not all difficulties inspire students to struggle and learn. Too much confusion is overwhelming. I think Kornell is talking about achievable challenges.

About Joanne


  1. In my CC classes, I use mostly open-ended questions on the frequent tests and quizzes. This is apparently unusual and take my students a bit to get used to. They tell me that they study more and differently because they really need to know it and can’t fake their way through by guessing. I sometimes grade generously on the quizzes, but by the time the exams and final come around my students are often amazed at how much they’ve learned.

  2. I’ll remember this the next time a student complains about my awful penpersonship on the white board. “My barely legible writing is for your *benefit*.”

  3. By the time my students reach me in 7th and 8th grade, they are used to having things spoon-fed to them. If there is any sort of confusion, or indeed any place where they have to connect the dots, most immediately give up and shut down. I have yet to find a way for such a thing to signal to my students “I need to think a bit” instead of “I need to talk to my classmates, then run around the room until he gives up and spoon-feeds it to me.”

    The learned helplessness is also partially a result of insufficient background knowledge. If they don’t have a thorough command of the necessary basics, there’s no way they can wrap their heads around the problem. To put it another way, you can’t pick the right tool if you don’t know what they do.

    How do you teach kids that they need to put forth some effort on their own when they’ve been told the exact opposite for their entire lives?

  4. Ex-Physics Teacher says:

    When I was student teaching I gave an extremely simple problem that everyone in the class (this was “Conceptual Physics”, or Physics for Sweathogs) managed to solve between 30 seconds and 5 minutes. The “supervisor”, an ex-principal who seemingly knew nothing of the subject matter, was furious and wanted to pull the plug on me permanently. Why? Because the kids were “confused”. Apparently they were supposed to go through the process of solving a physics problem just as mindlessly as one would bake brownies by just following a recipe. I was supposed to have “modeled the behavior” such that they would know exactly what to do. Had I modeled the behavior, I would have given the answer away in a heartbeat and I would have deprived them of the experience of rubbing some brain cells together to get the answer themselves.

    Similar incidents occurred while I was working.