Confusion as an emotional metacognitive experience : students’ voices making sense of confusion during learning

Zengilowski, Allison Nicole
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Confusion is a frequent and important experience accompanying the learning process, characterized as both affective and cognitive, and especially prevalent during complex learning. Although research has highlighted confusion’s affective processes and its connection to learning outcomes, students’ lived experiences, what they think about confusion, and what impacts their responses to their experience of confusion have been largely overlooked. Guiding questions for the two studies comprising this project focused on what learners decided to do when confused and what factors played a role in determining the path they took when experiencing confusion. Qualitative methodologies rooted in grounded theory (Corbin & Strauss, 2008) were used in these investigations. Focus group sessions were conducted in Study 1 (n = 27), with students expressing that confusion was a negative experience but useful for learning. Sources of confusion were cognitive (prior knowledge), affective (relational/emotional status), and contextual (classroom factors), and students recognized their confusion either when initially comprehending or when applying new knowledge. Students relied on themselves and others to resolve confusion, or they ignored it, temporarily or permanently. Factors influencing how students responded to confusion included prior experiences, course goals, and personal/cultural identities. Study 2 examined students’ experiences of confusion in online learning environments, incorporating classroom observations and stimulated recall interviews with 19 participants. Findings from this study were used to create a process model of confusion, illustrating how once students recognize confusion, they choose to address or ignore it. If addressing, learners may move to interim unresolved confusion, and either move to ignore or circle back to addressing the confusion. Addressing confusion leads to one possibility, that the confusion is resolved. Alternatively, if learners ignore confusion, they could do so temporarily, choosing to address it later, or permanently ignore it, resulting in terminal unresolved confusion. Factors impacting students’ decision processes before and while they address or ignore confusion were personal, environmental, and resource related. This research develops an understanding of how students conceptualize confusion and the processes they engage in when confused. By centering students’ voices and highlighting their perceptions and experiences of confusion, the study provides useful insights for researchers as they bolster the theoretical foundations of how to conceptualize confusion and of the ways it can be resolved. Additionally, the study may be useful for practitioners to help them identify appropriate ways to support learners as they move through confusion.