The Role of Confusion in Your Prep

by on March 20th, 2013

Wait – is that a typo? Maybe I meant “Confucius,” the Chinese teacher and philosopher?

I actually do mean confusion. :) Journalist Annie Murphy Paul recently contributed a post to KQED’s Mind/Shift blog: Why Confusion Can Be a Good Thing.

Go ahead and read it – I’ll wait. It won’t take you more than 5-10 minutes. Take particular note of item 2 on her 3-item list.

Why Is Confusion Good?

Ms. Murphy Paul supports her thesis with an important point: When we don’t know the “right” way to do something, we open up our minds to many potential paths – and sometimes an alternate potential path is better than the “official” path.

We’ve all had the experience of reading an official solution and thinking, “Seriously? That’s how you have to do this?” only to find a better way on an online forum or via discussion with a teacher or fellow students.

Further, as far as a test like the GMAT is concerned, the discomfort inherent in figuring out that best path allows us to determine why a certain approach is preferable. That knowledge, in turn, helps us to know when we can re-use a certain line of thinking or solution process on a different (but similar) question in future.

How Can I Use Confusion To Help My Prep?

Murphy-Paul offers three suggestions (quotes below are from the article; the rest is just me):

(1) “Expose yourself to confusing material”

On the GMAT, you have no choice: you’re going to be exposing yourself to confusing material every day! So I’ll tweak Murphy-Paul’s suggestion slightly: embrace the confusion. Instead of feeling annoyed or frustrated when that feeling of confusion creeps in, tell yourself: okay, I’m on track here. I’m going to figure this out – and, when I do, I’m going to remember it because my current confusion is actually going to help me remember better once I do know what I’m doing!

(2) “Withhold the answers from yourself”

What’s the first thing you do after finishing a problem or problem set? If you’re anything like my students, you look at the answer to see whether you got it right. Is that really the best move?

Sometimes, it is. If you’re doing drill sets and you want to make sure that you learn from one problem before trying the next, then check the solution immediately.

Other times, though, you’re not doing yourself a favor by jumping right over to the answer. In particular, when you know that you don’t know… then don’t look at the answer right now! Struggle with it for a while first.

Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes. During this time, you can do anything you want as long as that doesn’t involve looking at the answer / solution. You can look stuff up in your strategy guides or books. You can ask a friend. You can spend all the time you want trying alternate solution methods – no clock ticking down.

By the end of that time, have an answer – even if it’s just a guess – and have a rationale for why you eliminated the answers that you eliminated. If possible, also have a rationale for why you chose the answer that you did. (That won’t always be possible – sometimes it is just a guess!)

Got that? Okay, now go look at the answer. But wait! Don’t read the solution yet – just look at the answer first. Maybe you’ll want to go look at the problem again before you read the solution. Here are some reasons why you might do that:

  • You were sure you got it right but you didn’t; can you find the mistake?
  • You guessed and got lucky; was that pure dumb luck or were you actually able to increase your odds via a strong educated guess? Alternatively, maybe you knew more than you thought you did!
  • You did get it wrong but knowledge of the correct answer prompts an idea about how to do or think about the problem. If so, explore that before you read the solution.

(3) “Test yourself before you learn”

When I was in the fifth grade, I was in a “progressive” school and, for our math classes, we took each chapter test before we actually learned the chapter. If we passed it, we were allowed to skip that chapter and move to the next one. (Lesson #1: sometimes we know more than we think we know.)

This approach also lets us know what we don’t know going into our study of that lesson or chapter – and that can actually help us to learn more effectively.

On one pre-test in that fifth grade class, I was asked to give examples of Arabic* numerals and I had no idea what the test was talking about – I knew Roman numerals, but had never heard of Arabic numerals. (*now typically called Hindu-Arabic numerals)

Turns out that Hindu-Arabic numerals are the ones we use every day – 0, 1, 2, 3, and so on. :) I was so curious after I took the test that I looked up the answer right away and my intense curiosity burned the knowledge into my brain – I’ve never forgotten. (Although I’ll also acknowledge that, except for that particular test, I never had to use that piece of information again. Until right now!)

I suggest starting a new chapter with a few of the problems listed as practice or drills at the end of the chapter. (For instance, in our strategy guides, you’d do some of the end-of-chapter problem sets.) If those go well, then try a lower-numbered OG problem. Keep going until you hit a couple of substantial roadblocks. Then dive into the chapter with that burning curiosity to figure out how to get around those roadblocks!

Bottom Line: It’s About Learning How To Think

Ultimately, everything we’re talking about right now comes down to one overarching principle, one we’ve discussed before. Prepping for a test like the GMAT is really about learning how to think – flexibly, efficiently, effectively.

So here’s another tool for your arsenal in your quest to accomplish this. Embrace confusion. If you’re not confused some of the time, then you’re not pushing yourself enough. Let yourself flail around a bit without panicking about it. Don’t expect to get everything right. Make that confusion work for you!


  • Hello Stacey,

    I do not know if comment on this article would be the best place to ask this question, but still looking for your advise. You might seen me commenting on your articles here and there, but this time I am asking out help for my situation. Its been long while i have been studying for gmat, and already took it three times earlier, without much preparation and bombed the test. Then realized there is much more to it, and started preparing with full drive. I have finished OG 12: three times, Kaplan Premier book : Twice, Mgmat SC: 3-4 time, Mgmat CR: 3-4 times, Mgmat Rc: 2 times. I improved my score but not to great extend. I got 600 (Q:47, V: 25) on my last gmat prep test. I was surprised to see verbal screwed up after so much of practice. This was my second full length cat. I did much better then this on my last CAT exam, but screwed up the Quant that time. When I review my, exam I mostly know the correct answer to almost all the questions i got incorrect, and could solve them in same 2-3 min time frame. But, during the exam I don't know what happens, I always have to guess blindly on last 8-9 ques on verbal and could not even finish the quant.    

    To my surprise. most of my wrong answers are the last 9-10 answers and that too in the row. I know the content, and I think its just timing issue with me. I remind me before exam that i need to let go after 2-3 min, But during exam i get so involved that do not even look at the clock or, even if I know that I am behind, I never quit.

    I know the content.. for sure, have got the git rate of close to 92% in my third 0G Rev. compared to hit rate of 52% when I started. I have gone thru every video by Ron (Mgmat), Brent (Gmatprepnow), and Brian (Veritas Prep) at least twice and helped a lot in finding out what gmat questions look for or hot they bate you.

    Also, Because of miserable performance on a full length test, sitting for a full length test give me jitters, and I am always scared of taking the test. Please help and let me know where I am lacking, and how to go from here.

    Much Thanks in advance. 


  • "I don't know what happens, I always have to guess blindly on last 8-9 ques on verbal and could not even finish the quant. "

    You know what's happening: that's a timing problem. You've got to learn how to take the test with the mindset that it's testing you on your decision-making skills, not on your ability to get everything right. Read this:

    Then go back to all of the time management stuff and start practicing it and reminding yourself of what this test is REALLY about:

    • Hello Stacey, 

      Much thanks for your valuable suggestion. Actually, I did read your posts, and did get motivated by these two articles: "In it to win it and All you know about time management". I guess one of the most amazing piece of advice for all future GMAT takers.

      OK, So as per your advise, I took GMAT Prep again, and with the goal of that I have to finish the test on time. And, to my surprise my score increased by 60 points. I got 660 (Q47, V35) compared to my 600(Q47, V25), just a day before. I did not do any study between these cats, and just went thru your posts. I was still off a little bit on time in the middle of the exam, as I guessed on few question to get on time. Also, In quant, I somewhat rushed in the end, The last two questions were simple and easy for me, but still could not answer them right because I was rushing and could not understand question even after reading them 5-6 times. Some of the questions were repeat, but still I solved them completely, or waited for two minutes if I knew the answer already.

      I have already mentioned that I have finished OG12: Thrice, Kaplan Premier: Twice, OG Verbal: Once, MGMAT SC, CR, RC: 4-5 times. I did all this without taking any CAT. The now started taking CAT and was planning to take real test in like a month or so. But, bummed as my cat results were around 600. This time 660. I feel strong with quant, SC and CR. I guess timing was the issue and I tried to fix it a little this time. I think only taking CAT can improve my time management.

      I was planning on taking a MGMAT CAT every alternate day, but then read your post somewhere that one should take max. one CAT in a Week, as taking CATs too quickly can burn you. Also, you said that CATS are to judge your improvement, once you study for some time. But, In my case I already studied a lot without taking any CATs, and was about to take some CATS and improve / plan my strategy for the test day. I was planning on taking off from work for a week and taking 4-5 CATS in next 10 days and then finally take the real exam.

      Please advise, how should I proceed? I think I have content knowledge, and its only timing. Its been a long time I have been studying for this exam. Fall 2014 applications deadlines are impending, and I am still still stuck on GMAT. Please suggest, what the best way to go from now, as i really do not want to miss the R1 deadline.

      Abhishek Sharma   

    • Great!

      Don't only take CATs - that's a very inefficient way to improve your timing. Use the time management article you read. First, develop your 1-minute time sense (for most people, this takes 1 to 3 weeks). Then, practice the process:

      Quant: first minute, try to figure out how to do it. ~1m, if you don't know exactly what you're doing, stop trying to find the right answer. Instead, switch to educated guessing (looking for wrong answers). Do this for up to a minute, then guess and move on.

      Verbal 1 minute questions (SC, main idea RC): If you start to get the 1-min feeling and are at all lost, guess immediately and move on.

      Verbal longer questions (CR, specific RC): if you start to get the 1-min feeling and are lost / stuck, start eliminating aggressively, just playing the odds (eg, extreme words are unlikely to be correct on RC). Spend up to ~30 seconds, then guess and move on.

      Practice this in mixed problem sets (you can use GMAT Focus for quant, or OG questions - even old ones - or the GMATPrep Prep Pack #1). Note that just because you've done OG before doesn't mean those problems aren't still valuable for you. You didn't really study them from the point of view of timing - most efficient solutions? how to know WHEN to pull the plug? how to guess? etc.

      Look at the "how to study" section of this article:

      Then, when you feel you have made progress on the *entire* timing process, you're ready to take another CAT.

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