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Can being confused actually be a beneficial part of the learning process? That’s one of the questions being explored by researchers at the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC).

This project brings together researchers from The University of Melbourne, Macquarie University, Curtain University and the Australian Council for Educational Research to study how confusion can assist learning in a digital environment.

Associate Professor Jason Lodge from the University of Queensland is driving this project and has been a major contributor. The research to date has shown that being confused cues students into changing their learning strategies to overcome impasses as they learn new concepts or misconceptions.

Lodge says his SLRC colleagues Professor Gregor Kennedy from the University of Melbourne and Professor Lori Lockyer from University of Technology Sydney were the two who initially decided to explore the idea that confusion is really common. He says that it’s an issue that researchers don’t necessarily know a lot about, despite there being some work being done in US.

Using a combination of research techniques including eye tracking, video recording and an electroencephalogram (EEG), the team examined the role of confusion in various digital environments.

Lodge says part of the reason for looking at confusion in a digital environment is that students are increasingly doing knowledge acquisition-type work in digital environments through various simulations, videos and similar projects, and this is something researchers need to develop a better understanding of.

This research also explored the association between students’ confidence and the challenge they experience while undertaking learning tasks. Lodge says the data show there is a tendency for some students to be overconfident and they therefore don’t experience enough of a disequilibrium or impasse in the learning process.

“So, they don’t actually change the way that they think about whatever the conception is, they sort of miss the point because they’re overconfident and ploughing through it,” he says. “Whereas, obviously the other side of it is if you’ve got students who are not confident enough or don’t have enough self-efficacy to get through it, then when they reach an impasse, it might just lead them to get frustrated and give up.”

According to Lodge, there are many ways that teachers can allow for more uncertainty and challenging situations in their classrooms, and supporting students to be okay with it is an important first step. “I think a big part of this is to move away from this notion that confusion is to be avoided at all costs. [Instead] create supportive conditions to allow students to go through that process experiencing disequilibrium and potentially finding that confusing, but at the same time, working with the students to understand that that’s a perfectly normal part of learning when you’re learning really complicated things. It really is an important cue to signal that you might need to think about whatever it is that you’re doing in a slightly different way.”

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au.