This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter.
We all know that confusion doesn’t feel good. Because it seems like an obstacle to learning, we try to arrange educational experiences and training sessions so that learners will encounter as little confusion as possible. But as is so often the case when it comes to learning, our intuitions here are exactly wrong. Scientists have been building a body of evidence over the past few years demonstrating that confusion can lead us to learn more efficiently, more deeply, more lastingly—as long as it’s properly managed.
How can this be? The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. It evolved to identify related events or artifacts and connect them into a meaningful whole. This capacity serves us well in many endeavors, from recognizing the underlying themes in literature, to understanding the deep structure of a scientific or mathematical problem, to anticipating hidden complications and seeing their solutions in our work. Over time, exposure to these problem-solving situations gives us a subconscious familiarity with their essential nature that we can hardly articulate in words, but which we can easily put into action.
We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what’s up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We’re motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.
Here, three ways that researchers have deliberately induced confusion, and how you can adapt them to your own learning:
Expose yourself to confusing material. Reading a story by the surrealist writer Franz Kafka, or watching a movie by the eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, imposes on us a “meaning threat”—the uncomfortable feeling that nothing quite makes sense. We become motivated to find meaning somewhere, even if not in the original story or film, and this disposition actually makes us more accurate at picking out patterns. That’s the finding of Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine, researchers who published their results in the journal Psychological Science. If you’re about to engage in any sense-making activity, from analyzing data to solving word problems, you may want to try delving into material that doesn’t make much sense first.
Withhold the answers from yourself. We’ve heard a lot lately about the benefits of experiencing and overcoming failure. One way to get these benefits is to set things up so that you’re sure to fail—by tackling a difficult problem without any instruction or assistance. Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has reported (in the Journal of the Learning Sciences) that people who try solving math problems in this way don’t come up with the right answer—but they do generate a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like, leading them to perform better on such problems in the future. Kapur calls this “productive failure,” and you can implement it in your own learning by allowing yourself to struggle with a problem for a while before seeking help or information.
Test yourself before you learn. It sounds crazy, but studies by Nate Kornell, a psychology professor at Williams College, and others have found that trying to answer questions about material you haven’t even seen yet will help you learn that information better once you do encounter it. In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Kornell and his coauthors theorize that searching our minds for answers (even if we come up empty) creates “fertile ground” in the brain for encoding the answer when it is eventually provided. You can do this yourself by flipping through a book or report you have to read and quizzing yourself on the chapter titles and section headings (many textbooks also supply lists of review questions which can be used as a pre-test). My favorite suggestion for using this technique: As you start to Google some piece of information, pause before looking at the results the search engine returns and try to come up with the answer yourself. Even if you can’t do it, you’ll be more likely to remember the information once it’s in front of your eyes.
(For abstracts of the three studies mentioned here, go to my blog.)