Eric Mazur – Confusion is Good

It sounds counter intuitive but that was one of the messages from the opening keynote at this year’s ALT conference by Eric Mazur Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University. Eric’s keynote began with a plea “Let’s not abandon the scientific method when teaching”. My colleague Martin Hawksey has blogged about some of the brain activity data that Eric opened his presentation with, and Sheila MacNeill has been thinking about conference tweeting. I’d like to mention some of the research Eric has carried out with students in his Harvard physics course around the question “Does confusion indicate a lack of understanding?”.

Students were asked to read a chapter of a textbook before class and then asked three questions about the concepts covered. The first two questions asked for explanations of the concepts covered while in a third feedback question they were asked to give details of anything they were confused about. What the student’s answers showed is that 75% of students who said they weren’t confused in the third question actually got the first two questions wrong. What the data revealed is counter intuitive – that confusion can be good – and may be an indication of deeper thinking.

Eric’s talk reminds me (I can’t resist a personal anecdote) of something one of my teachers said to me after one of my A level exams (many years ago). After asking how hard the exam was they added, “only the good students can gauge how difficult an exam is”. For me the comment relates to Eric’s conclusions about confusion, you need a certain depth of understanding to be confused, or understand how difficult an exam is.

Mazur’s talk also covered research on gender differences in tests and the best way to teach demonstrations, and is well worth watching.

His slides are available at:
The two other keynotes at this year’s conference, by Natasa Milic-Frayling and Richard Noss will also be broadcast live, links are on the conference website

One thought on “Eric Mazur – Confusion is Good

  1. Yes, confusion certainly can be good. Without a little confusion, learning can’t really get started. When I look back on my best learning experiences, they invariably started with the teacher (or lecturer) doing or saying something unsettling. This is easily forgotten when everyone is keen to start ‘teaching’ right from the start. I think it is usually better to start by getting the learners to tell you something about their own confusion….