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Confusion Helps Us Learn

It may be a good thing to be confused during the learning process. Christie Nicholson reports

When we’re confused by something—say with a movie plot or calculus—we tend to feel uncomfortable, frustrated. But maybe we should embrace the confusion. Because a new study finds that confusion can lead to better learning.

Scientists set up a situation where they purposely confused subjects during a pretend learning session.

The subjects watched an animated tutor and student discuss possible flaws in a scientific study. The researchers had the animated tutor and student disagree with each other on specific flaws.  But to set up a really confusing situation for one group of subjects they also had the pretend tutor and student make incorrect or contradictory statements about the study. Then the subjects had to decide which of the two opinions had more scientific merit.

Subjects who were forced to deal with the incorrect and contradictory statements did significantly better on later tests where they had to spot flaws in studies, as opposed to those subjects who only faced the disagreements between the animated tutor and student. The study will be published in the journal Learning and Instruction.

Researchers note that confusion motivates us to work harder to understand, and so we gain a deeper and more comprehensive knowledge of a subject.

—Christie Nicholson\

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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