In The Brilliant Report: Three Studies On The Virtues of Confusion

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Subscribers to The Brilliant Report, my weekly e-newsletter, learned in the most recent issue about the virtues of confusion—why feeling bewildered and confounded can lead us to learn more efficiently, more deeply, and more lastingly, as long as this mental state is properly managed. Here are abstracts of the three studies mentioned in the story (and if you’d like to receive the newsletter yourself, please sign up in the box to the left).


Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar
Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine
Psychological Science, September 2009, Volume 20, Issue 9, pages 1125-1131
In the current studies, we tested the prediction that learning of novel patterns of association would be enhanced in response to unrelated meaning threats. This prediction derives from the meaning-maintenance model, which hypothesizes that meaning-maintenance efforts may recruit patterns of association unrelated to the original meaning threat. Compared with participants in control conditions, participants exposed to either of two unrelated meaning threats (i.e., reading an absurd short story by Franz Kafka or arguing against one’s own self-unity) demonstrated both a heightened motivation to perceive the presence of patterns within letter strings and enhanced learning of a novel pattern actually embedded within letter strings (artificial-grammar learning task). These results suggest that the cognitive mechanisms responsible for implicitly learning patterns are enhanced by the presence of a meaning threat.

Designing for Productive Failure
Manu Kapura and Katerine Bielaczyca
Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2012, Volume 21, Issue 1, pages 45-83
In this article, we describe the design principles undergirding productive failure (PF; M. Kapur, 2008). We then report findings from an ongoing program of research on PF in mathematical problem solving in 3 Singapore public schools with significantly different mathematical ability profiles, ranging from average to lower ability. In the 1st study, 7th-grade mathematics students from intact classes experienced 1 of 2 conditions: (a) PF, in which students collaboratively solved complex problems on average speed without any instructional support or scaffolds up until a teacher-led consolidation; or (b) direct instruction (DI), in which the teacher provided strong instructional support, scaffolding, and feedback. Findings suggested that although PF students generated a diversity of linked representations and methods for solving the complex problems, they were ultimately unsuccessful in their problem-solving efforts. Yet despite seemingly failing in their problem-solving efforts, PF students significantly outperformed DI students on the well-structured and complex problems on the posttest. They also demonstrated greater representation flexibility in solving average speed problems involving graphical representations, a representation that was not targeted during instruction. The 2nd and 3rd studies, conducted in schools with students of significantly lower mathematical ability, largely replicated the findings of the 1st study. Findings and implications of PF for theory, design of learning, and future research are discussed.

The Pretesting Effect: Do Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learning?
Lindsey E. Richland, Liche Sean Kao, and Nate Kornell
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, September 2009, Volume 15, Issue 3, page 243
Testing previously studied information enhances long-term memory, particularly when the information is successfully retrieved from memory. The authors examined the effect of unsuccessful retrieval attempts on learning. Participants in 5 experiments read an essay about vision. In the test condition, they were asked about embedded concepts before reading the passage; in the extended study condition, they were given a longer time to read the passage. To distinguish the effects of testing from attention direction, the authors emphasized the tested concepts in both conditions, using italics or bolded keywords or, in Experiment 5, by presenting the questions but not asking participants to answer them before reading the passage. Posttest performance was better in the test condition than in the extended study condition in all experiments—a pretesting effect—even though only items that were not successfully retrieved on the pretest were analyzed. The testing effect appears to be attributable, in part, to the role unsuccessful tests play in enhancing future learning.

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2 Responses to “In The Brilliant Report: Three Studies On The Virtues of Confusion”

  1. Love this. Great pedagogical research.

    I think you can improve on most of these scenarios by making the transition between challenge (asking questions about the content) and the explicit content or feedback loops more seamless so that students can go back and forth between them more easily may be even more effective at information transfer, but there certainly are advantages to letting students struggle with material longer, becoming more intimate with the entire environment vs. simply the right answer.

  2. brilliant, as usual! :) thank you, annie, for your insightful and thoughtful nuggets of information that help those of us interested in the dynamic essence of learning and teaching

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