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Confusion and Learning

We’re heading into the last leg of the semester, and many of us have students working on the most complex projects and concepts in our courses. If we were to walk in the students’ shoes a bit we would see that they are working on complicated culminating components in all of their courses right now.

At the beginning of the week, I began working with one of my classes on the third step of a five step project. We have been working on the project for three weeks, and students had access to a very explicit three page handout detailing what to do in what order. We had read samples of others doing similar types analysis, and I had had them practice doing the required types of analysis with short examples over several class sessions. I knew though that soon some of them would discover that the “notes” they had taken in step 2 were not going to allow them to do what they needed to do in later steps for their own projects.

Perhaps some of them had been texting when I went over things in class. Perhaps some of them didn’t read the handout or misread the handout. However, with complex projects or projects that ask students to do things they haven’t done before, the process of doing the prep work entails realizing that past habits aren’t going to work. I can tell them that they need notes detailed enough to provide them rich data for analysis. I can tell them that “all day long” as my grandmother might have said, but “they won’t know until they try it for themselves and find out.”

This moment of discovery happened for several of my writing students on Tuesday, and let’s just say it was not a happy moment. Here’s a sample: “I am so confused! This assignment is so confusing! You are so confusing!” Other students raised significant eyebrows indicating, perhaps, that they knew what was required last week or last year or since the day they were born.

I could take comfort in the fact that the most vehemently confused had missed class a lot, but really there’s a time in a learning process when we all become frustrated and feel “confused.” You know what I’m talking about. You start working on a new thing and you think “I got this” and you start doing it and you reach a point where you see a new aspect or requirement of that thing and you haven’t figured out how to address this new aspect. Socrates dealt with this moment by claiming that not knowing was the point of true knowledge. Others of us enjoy dramatizing the moment more by anguishing and verbalizing. We text our buddies with “Can you believe this? I have no idea what I am going to do about this!” Our best buddies know not to argue with us. They offer us chocolate or say “How about those Red Wings?”

Today, I had prepared another practice session to help “clear up confusion.” We did an exercise very similar to three others we had done before. I also gave them a little speech about how the project is indeed different than other assignments they may have done. “I am asking you to practice offering your own analysis and interpretation. There’s a time for summarizing and manipulating concepts to show you know them, and there’s a time offering your own interpretations and proposals based on your observations. You can do it!” They seemed more confident and were able to plan out work for taking the next step in the project. I don’t fool myself that I magically worked this transformation for them. I think they had some chocolate or equivalent and had time to calm down and reflect. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.


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