If Confusion Helps Students Learn, Shouldn’t They Be Information Literate By Now? | From the Bell Tower

When students have trouble grasping the subject matter, intuitively we work to make it as clear as possible. New research suggests actually promoting some confusion may work better. If that’s true, how would it change library instruction?
Steven BellWhen students have trouble grasping the subject matter, intuitively we work to make it as clear as possible. New research suggests actually promoting some confusion may work better. If that’s true, how would it change library instruction? Everything appears to be going well in my instruction session for freshman. It’s an introduction to college-level research and the library resource environment. For students transitioning to college, as Project Information Literacy found, the process can be overwhelming. But it looks like they are getting it. We had a good discussion about what research is, because I’m not assuming they know. I ask “What is research?” We delve into a five-step preparation process designed to get the students thinking first and hitting the keyboard later. They work together to explore a resource they’re encountering for the first time. We do some mind mapping to take a conceptual approach to understanding the assignment topic. I engage them in an activity aimed at making search statement logic easier to grasp.
“Everyone stand up. You are no longer a student. You are an article in a database. Stay standing up if you are wearing a hoodie. Everyone else sit down. Stay standing if you are wearing glasses…”
Now they get how terms and combinations of words impact search results. After some practice, we do a quiz with our clickers—and 90 percent are getting it right. All right. This is going really well. Now, for the big finale, we all connect to that most popular of academic research databases for some real live authentic learning. What the hell? This is the worst searching I’ve ever seen. These searches might not even work on Google. What just happened?

Did I Make It Too Clear?

I wonder why, even with a well-thought out, pedagogically appropriate lesson plan, the students are struggling to learn these basic techniques. A few of them do well, so perhaps I exaggerate the seriousness of the problem. Still, too many, when exposed to our research databases, quickly retreat to that rote Google search mentality that shaped their research behavior through their formative years and served them well in high school. Even if the students do reasonably well in a search class and appear to have grasped the material, retaining the learning is another matter. I suspect my approach falls well short of what it takes to move an understanding of good research practices from short-term to long-term memory. You may have experienced this as well. Having too little time for the initial learning or no opportunity for reinforcement in future classes is an undeniable impediment to good pedagogical practice. Given the many constraints librarian educators face, what could we be doing better in the classroom? One possibility is to stop trying to make it all crystal clear for the students and instead encourage them to embrace some confusion.

Try a Little More Confusion

Suggestions to let students struggle as they tread the path to enlightenment are not new. Proponents of grit building as the way to better learning believe that allowing students to fail may be good for them. Developing resilience, the ability to figure things out while avoiding frustration and overcoming the desire to quit, is recognized as a student practice needed for learning challenging content. One faculty member’s classroom experiments are leading him to believe that students do learn more effectively when their learning materials leave them somewhat confused. That’s what Derek Muller discovered when teaching undergraduate physics—and some learning experts say their research backs him up. Rather than giving students another how-it-works video lecture on physics theory, Muller created one in which he argues with himself in order to establish the ambiguity of the content. Along the way, students are presented with opportunities to think through questions that can help them better grasp the content. Sure enough, when comparing two groups of students, Muller found those who encountered confusion demonstrated a higher level of knowledge and confidence than those exposed to more traditional classroom methods. Now I’m wondering if I should be more intentional about leaving students confused.

The Catch

Like any interesting pedagogy, it sounds good, but things get a bit more complicated when you try putting it into practice. While it’s quite possible that students will benefit from confronting and thinking through what’s confusing them, education researchers say it only works if instructors can track and moderate the confusion. How exactly do you detect confusion when it’s happening, and then make the right move to counteract it? Confused students are quite good at masking it. Where exactly the confusion happens in my instruction session I cannot quite say for sure. There’s obvious confusion about what to do when confronted by an advanced search screen, as students are likely encountering one for the first time. But I suspect the real confusion sets in before that.

Promoting Productive Confusion

In explaining his thinking about clarity versus confusion in the classroom, Muller says something interesting about the phenomenon that occurs when students think they understand the subject matter. “Most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before.” It may be that when the students do well on the quiz, they think they’ve got it and it raises their confidence level. If there is truth to what Muller suspects is happening, when the students move on to the real time search, they revert to prior practices. It seems two things are necessary to promote productive confusion. First, develop a better in-class approach to allowing the confusion to form—in a way that makes it more obvious to the instructor—and second, create a learning technique that allows the students to creatively work through their confusion.

Wipe the Slate Clean

Perhaps the first step, if you believe there’s something to Muller’s theories about the link between student confusion and learning, is to work at better understanding what its exact relation is to becoming adept at academic research. That could require more intense observation and conversation with students to grasp what confuses them and why they are unable to work their way through that confusion. It might even involve interacting with students in a completely different type of instruction environment. Then it might be possible to craft learning strategies to help students confront and work through their confusion. Muller offers one possibility. He says that when his company, Veritasium, creates learning videos, it finds the ones that work best introduce people to concepts to which they are totally new. That’s because there are fewer misconceptions and bad practices to overcome. A better way to begin may be to have students start with a blank slate by asking them to just forget everything they’ve ever known or thought they knew about searching for information. Not easy for them, I’m sure. Having students demonstrate what they are doing for each activity and perhaps talk through how they approached it may help isolate when confusion first sets in. More time consuming for me, I’m sure. Much of what we know about student literacies and how we work with them to improve their skills is in a state of flux and there’s bound to be more ambiguity before we achieve clarity. This is a good time to be experimenting. Allowing for more confusion in the classroom could be good for us and our students.

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