What does “I’m confused” mean?

Back in April, John Burk blogged about some research suggesting that when material is harder to process, we learn more while feeling like we are learning less.

All kinds of interesting ideas spun out of that one:

  • Is confusion necessary for learning?
  • If so, how much?
  • Which kinds of confusion are helpful and which kinds are harmful?
  • Why do some students seem intolerant of any confusion at all?
  • What is confusion, anyway?

Dictionary.com offers these definitions of “confuse”:

  • to perplex or bewilder: The flood of questions confused me.
  • to make unclear or indistinct: The rumors and angry charges tended to confuse the issue.
  • to fail to distinguish between; associate by mistake; confound: to confuse dates; He always confuses the twins

What the definitions have in common is the idea of separate entities becoming inappropriately stirred together in one’s mind — either believing that two different things are the same, or being unsure whether things are the same.  It follows that fixing up confusion would involve distinguishing things from each other.

Shortly after reading John’s post, I made confusion the theme of our class day.  We started with some new electronic components; the goal was to use a reference document to identify the package types (distinguishing packages from each other).  Then we did a reading comprehension exercise about identifying confusion (distinguishing known ideas from unknown ideas). At the end of the morning, I asked my students to write briefly about confusion.  I used three prompts.  Here are some samples of their answers to the first one.

A. This morning I was confused when…

“I tried to look at what leads/terminations were on each SMT.”

“I was unsure what I was looking for.”

“One of the diagrams in the J-STD looked identical to another but was supposed to be a different [component].

“I am confused how to solder SMTs, and how the chips stay in the plated through-holes without falling out.  Also, how would we desolder the pins without damaging the components?”

It seems that people mean a variety of things when they say “I’m confused.”  From the examples above, the categories I can see so far are

  1. I’ve never heard of this before.
  2. The directions are ambiguous
  3. The reference material is ambiguous
  4. I’m trying to make inferences based on what I know, but none of the possibilities seems to fit the evidence.

#2 and 3 contain some version of “distinguishing”.  Interestingly, several people used the word “confused” simply because a concept was unknown.

There are two categories that didn’t come up that day: “I’m confused” sometimes translates to 5. “I want you to admit that you were wrong.”  I’m sure you’ve heard this one.  It crops up at staff meetings when a manager pulls the rug out from under one of their staff and tries to pretend they didn’t.  It comes in two flavours: accusatory/sarcastic and fake-nice.  It might go something like, “I’m confused.  Last month we were told to do X and now we’re being told that we should have been doing Y.  Can you help me understand exactly what we should be doing?”  In the classroom, it sometimes manifests as “But you said X!!”  This is typically said in an angry tone.  My tentative interpretation is something like, “you don’t know how to explain this (or you don’t know this yourself, or you’re just a jerk) because you’re saying contradictory things, and pretending you’re not.”

This can be extended to “I’m mad at you and I’m going to punish you.”  It only works if the students know how desperately I want them to understand the concepts and use them fluently.  For example, I once put a level 5 question on a test that included a semi-log graph.  The X axis only had every second major tick labelled, so it looked something like “1.. 100… 10,000…”  One student got that question wrong and was upset.  He made a point of point out the axis, emphasizing how much this “wrong” labelling confused him (implying, but not quite stating, that this caused him to get the question wrong).  I asked him what he thought it should be, and he explained that it should be labelled “1… 10… 100…”.  “So you actually knew what it meant,” I said.  “Yeah,” he smiled sheepishly.  “So you’re mad at me for doing something that wasn’t exactly the same as what you expected, even though you had the skills to solve it.”  “Yeah,” he said, laughing.   It was the start of a good discussion, and now that it’s been brought into the open, we can refer back to it.

Our working definitions of confusion were probably influenced by the kinds of tasks we were in the middle of.  For example, no one related confusion to making mistakes or failing at some task (likely to feel confusing, since you probably thought your attempt was going to succeed).  I’m keeping my ears open for other things people communicate with the word “confusion.”  What have I missed?


  1. Mylene,
    this is a really fascinating exercise. It makes me want to take a couple of weeks to track student statements of confusion and see what patterns we can find. It also makes we want to finish off a few of the other confusion and learning drafts I’ve got sitting around in my blog. 🙂

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