What my students say about confusion

My students and I talked a lot about confusion last month.  I’m trying to figure out what confusion is, exactly, how my students and I can respond to it.  I’m also seriously considering whether confusion is necessary for learning and, if so, how we can create fruitful confusion.  Asking my students “what does confusion mean” just causes confusion.  So I’ve experimented with ways of posing the question.  In my last post, I wrote about the answers I got when I asked them to finish the sentence “This morning I was confused when…”.  There were two follow-up prompts.  Here are some samples of student responses.

B.  I was confused so I…

“asked a classmate”

“checked the book”

“asked the teacher”

“don’t remember what I did.”

C. That helped/didn’t help because…

“we talked and agreed on which one it was.”

“I realized that it was the same type of mount, just talking about a different part on it.”

[no answer]

As you can see, Part C was the toughest to answer.  Some students evaluated the process they used (talking to a classmate), some evaluated the results they got (distinguished between two things).  But most of them left it blank.

Does the lack of answer mean “I understand your question, but I don’t know how to answer,” or “I understand your question, but I don’t think it’s important enough to answer,” or “I don’t get what this question means?”

At the end of the day, I wrapped up by showing my students the Veritasium video about the effectiveness of science videos.  I was hoping they would relate their experiences of confusion to the confusion described in the video.  Some of the answers they wrote are here.  So I asked them to give some thought, as they watched, to how confusion affects their learning

“I get frustrated and mad, so I say screw it, but when I come back I think about what confused me”

“…slows down my learning at first, but once I understand what I was confused about I will remember it for a long time.”

“[allows] me to ask questions about things I don’t understand and learn new concepts that I never thought before or it is a different word for what I know the meaning of.”

“…makes me lose my train of thought.”

“… it prompts me to learn more about so that I understand it.  So really confusion is quite essential to my learning.”

” I get upset when I get confused about things I “thought” I knew.  I have a hard time figuring out what to do then because I question everything I knew about the subject.”


1.  The theme of the day was not very cohesive. Most students were not able to relate to the Veritasium video, and seemed unsure why we were watching it.  They also did not seem to connect the questions throughout the day.  I don’t think the questions were particularly well-posed, but I’m not sure how to improve them.

2.  I heard what the teacher wants to hear. There were a lot of “confusion is essential to my learning” type of answers.  It sounds nice, but no one in the class responds to confusing ideas by saying “oh neat — I’m going to learn something important!  Thanks, teach!”  The responses are  either giving up, demanding to know what the answer is, or anger.  Since most people didn’t write at all about those,  I either didn’t set this up in a way that helped people think past the clichés, or didn’t help them trust me with their real thoughts.

3.  Some students may define as confusing any new ideas that are frustrating.  I was assuming that confusion implied ambiguity, which is part of why “I’m confuuuuused!” pushes my buttons so badly.  Being accused of imprecise communication is, well, fightin words. 😉  (Yes, I know I have issues.)  But many students used the word “confusion” is a much broader way than I do.

4.  There are some clues here about who needs which confusion fix-up techniques.  If you are losing your train of thought, you may need techniques for “holding” your thinking.  If you are getting upset, you may need techniques for switching tasks, taking a different approach, getting up and walking around, etc.

Next September we’ll take some time in the first week to gather some experimental data on confusion-wrangling.  Maybe just pick a few confusing ideas that we’re not ready to figure out yet, practise responding to them in different ways, and record the effects.  I bet we could shoot some great video…


  1. The best teachers are the ones that teach how to think. The best teachers are the ones who have the instincts and soul of a researcher; one that enjoys analyzing what works and speculates as to why one thing works and another doesn’t; one that enjoys watching humans acquire information, skills, and knowledge. Good job

  2. Mylene,
    This is great. I’m totally going to steal this little 3 question survey. It might be interesting to make it a google doc form, and then share some of the answers anonymously with students, and discuss the pros/cons of various approaches at addressing confusion.

    • Anonymous sharing is definitely in order here — I think you’re right about the Google Doc. I can’t help thinking that the conversation is made less helpful because every student seemed to mean something different when they said “confusion”. Maybe the questions need to explicitly explain which “kind” of confusion they are about. Maybe I need to take some time to help students distinguish between “I’m too tired to think straight” and “I think I’ve found a contradiction in the textbook.”

      • Mylene—
        Here’s another thought. What if you had students brainstorm a few different definitions of confusion beforehand?And then used those definitions to form the basis of your survey.

    • re: brainstorming confusion… We sort of did. Earlier in the semester I had tried to get some conversations going about “what is confusion” or “what exactly does it mean when someone is confused” (can’t remember exactly what prompts I used). I got frustrated stares. I think that the question was too abstract, too enormous. That’s why, this time, I started with “think of something this morning that was confusing” (previous post). After giving everyone some time to write, I asked if people were wiling to share, which many were. I wrote them down, we talked a bit about whether all the things on the board were the same, or maybe there were different categories. That’s when they started distinguishing between “things I don’t know” and “things I thought I knew.” So it seems like starting from concrete examples enabled people to start generalizing.

      This reminds me again of Cris Tovani’s approach — “notice your thinking,” “hold your thinking,” “use your thinking for a purpose.” The first goal isn’t to change — it’s to notice. Next year I think I will have the students keep a “confusion log” in their skills folder, so we can build up a semester-long record of what kinds of things are confusing, how they handled their confusion, and whether it helped.

      This year’s group was pretty receptive when I framed it as, “I’m trying to get better at supporting students when they’re confused. I expect you all to get better every day with my help, so it’s only fair that I should try to get better every day too, and I hope you’ll help me.” That turned it into a collective research project about learning, which I think encouraged people to be forthcoming with their thoughts.

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