As part of the course evaluation for High-Reliability Soldering, I asked these questions.

Are there different kinds of confusion?  If so, do you learn more from certain kinds?  Why?

There is confusion that happens when you get too much information at the same time.  And confusion that happens when you think you know the answer but it’s the next best thing.  I learn more when getting it wrong and learning from my mistakes.

I think their 2 different kinds of confusion, 1st being “something you are just starting to learn” and 2nd being “something that you can’t understand.”  You can learn from both because the more you learn, the more new things you will discover.

Yes.  New confusion, I learn by practicing and stuff I thought I knew confusion, makes me get frustrated because it makes me think that my whole theory is wrong even tho parts might be right.

No, all confusion is the same, the attitude I have can be different in different circumstances.

What would help you get the most learning out of confusing ideas?  Why?

Someone that knows what they’re talking about explaining it in a way I can understand.  Or just a lot of practice, I find experience a key way to understand something.

Trying not to get frustrated, making sure I understand the idea first

Having time to take my time and look over what I was confused about.  Going over it as a class if more than one person is confused about the same thing.  You wouldn’t feel alone, like you were the only one who didn’t understand.

Just sitting down with someone who understands, and knows what they are doing.  Because I know I can ask questions that they can answer properly and with knowledge and not just kinda guess at the answer.

My thoughts

In our previous conversation about confusion, I got the impression that “I’m confused” could mean “I can’t tell these ideas apart/I’ve come to contradictory conclusions” (the dictionary definition of confusion), or it could mean “I don’t know” (i.e. a word, a procedure, or how to approach a problem).  They are very hard on themselves when they encounter things they don’t know.  I’m guessing that the thought process goes something like “Schools are set up to only give you information you already know.  So if I don’t know something, it must mean that I did something wrong or I’m stupid.”  I’m guessing here, I’ll have to come back to this.

From the responses above, it seems that my students use “confusion” even more broadly to include overwhelm, fatigue, and “when you thought you knew the answer.”

A number of students distinguished between the confusion of not knowing and the confusion of thinking you knew something.  I’m going to pay closer attention to which reactions go with which conditions.  My gut feeling is that “not knowing” usually results in frustration and requests for answers, but “when you thought you knew” results in anger and accusations of unfairness.

I might further distinguish the “when you thought you knew” confusion into two types: things you thought you knew based on previous experience, and things you thought you knew caused by pseudoteaching by yours truly…

You can see the tension between what students see as “guessing” and what I see as “gathering evidence and figuring it out.”  A related point is throwing out an entire model or train of thought because of finding one mistake.  Obviously, I need to approach this differently.  Maybe help students take more control of finding evidence, linking evidence to inferences, so that if they find contradictory evidence, it’s more clear which inferences it affects, or which evidence they need to double-check.

Finally, the responses show a pattern of responding to confusion by seeking an authority to hand over the right answer.  That’s not always a bad idea, of course.  But there are a lot of other approaches missing from the list.  I get the feeling this is going to be one of those long-term headaches that’s going to make me reorganize the inside of my brain.

Is confusion useful?

Confusion as my students see it incorporates a lot of things, some of which are not useful for learning (fatigue, self-flagellation).  My definition of confusion barely overlaps with theirs — including things like perplexity, conflict, and curiosity.  Gotta sleep on this one before I can figure out what on earth to do about this.

However, asking my students about confusion was extremely useful.  It definitely created perplexity for me, which means it’s driving my learning.  I feel like I have a permanent reservation at the all-you-can-eat food-for-thought buffet.