Why Confusing Students is Considered Good Teaching

There’s nothing teachers love hearing more than, “You made that lesson seem so easy! I completely understand!” Alas, those words might not be as encouraging as they’d hope. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, students don’t learn nearly as well when the information is made too straightforward.

To be clear, it takes a lot of intelligence and effort on the part of teachers to find ways to make challenging material seem not so complicated after all. At the same time, the process of breaking down the information to the simplest extreme might not be entirely worthwhile. Although it seems contradictory, providing students with confusing material might actually be beneficial. Several educational experts have found that adding in a little confusion can enhance and solidify deeper, longer-lasting learning.

This philosophy was put to the test with a pair of science education videos. One video presented the information very clearly with a short lecture and accompanying visual aids. The second video featured a man moving between two chairs to “argue” with himself over a scientific concept.

Predictably, kids who watched the first video said it did a good job of conveying the information and they felt they understood the science presented, while the kids who watched the second said they were confused by the man who switched seats to argue with himself. Nonetheless, when both groups of students were subsequently tested on the material they watched in the video, the kids who watched the more “confusing” video demonstrated significantly higher levels of understanding of the scientific concepts than those who received the streamlined lesson.

What happened? Presumably, the kids with the more “confusing” video had to engage in higher level thinking just to follow the narrative. Once their brains were triggered to think more critically and understand why a man was debating himself, they absorbed the science facts and theories better.

Part of the reason that students don’t appear to take in the information as well is that they just don’t pay as much attention to “easy” material. When the lesson is not challenging (or at least presented as if it’s not challenging), kids will shut off more of their brain than they should

Even worse, although they comprehend it less, these students also wind up assuming that they understand the content with much more confidence. It makes sense that if a lecture makes something seem easy that students will believe that they understand immediately. That’s not to say that students should never feel secure in mastering a concept, but it’s also of no use to have them leave the classroom feeling confident in a lesson that they only actually half understand at best.

Additionally, a second study involving robots echoed the previous study’s results. Some students learned from a pair of robots who presented material in tandem. Other students learned the same material from a pair of robots who disagreed on certain points, leaving the students to “intervene.” Again, the students reported ample confusion over having to mediate between two conflicting robots, but the process of having to sort through the presented information and reach their own conclusions yielded much greater understanding of the material.

Obviously, it’s not a good strategy for teachers to just go in and intentionally spread as much confusion as possible. There’s a limit – differing from student to student – in how much misdirection a mind can handle while still being able to come out having a deeper understanding of the material. With that in mind, it might also not be a good strategy to spoon-feed students educational material in the most easily digestible manner either.

Education is a process; we do our students a disservice if we don’t give them opportunities to work through confusing topics.


Mauvette Joesephine
Catherine Fisher3 years ago

It's horrible to deliberately confuse a child but it's OK to challenge them.
Some students are easily confused so deliberate confusion exasperates the problem.

Deborah W.
Deborah W3 years ago

Clear thinking humans, at any level of life, are a threat to those who wish to "guide" them into submission for THEIR particular cause or line of thinking ... better to get 'em young, I suppose, if that's the intent. The world runs deep in confusion, do we really need to add to it?

Miranda Lyon
Miranda Lyon3 years ago

"Confusing" is a bad choice of words. No teacher wants to leave students "confused" about material presented. A good teacher does want to provoke students to think about the material, ask questions, and sort some of the information out for themselves individually and with one another, always with guidance and correction of false conclusions by the teacher...it's called classroom discussion and it's the way kids learn best.

Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Our school systems are getting out of control. They teach to the test which really doesn't broaden anyone's way of looking at things. We need to get back to some creative teaching, hands on, learn by doing.

BJ J3 years ago

Confusing students wouldn't be my choice of teaching.

Steven Gregory Davis

@Bill E. There is a BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG difference between CONFUSING and CHALLENGING, how right you are!!!!...Unfortunately, I'm limited to sending you 1 green star/hr!!!

Shanti S.
S S3 years ago

Thank you.

Diane Beckett
Diane Beckett3 years ago

This is exactly why I like to read, watch, and listen to opposing viewpoints. One comes to a greater understanding of anything if you look at it from different sides instead of assuming the easy answer is always the correct one. Of course there are some things that are simple to understand regardless of how they are presented.

Alexandra G.
Alexandra G3 years ago

great article, thank you

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Thinking vs. Rote