The Role of Confusion in Your Prep

by , Mar 20, 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 KQEDs Mind/Shift blog: Why Confusion Can Be a Good Thing.

Go ahead and read it Ill wait. It wont 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 dont 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.

Weve all had the experience of reading an official solution and thinking, Seriously? Thats 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: youre going to be exposing yourself to confusing material every day! So Ill tweak Murphy-Pauls suggestion slightly: embrace the confusion. Instead of feeling annoyed or frustrated when that feeling of confusion creeps in, tell yourself: okay, Im on track here. Im going to figure this out and, when I do, Im going to remember it because my current confusion is actually going to help me remember better once I do know what Im doing!

(2) Withhold the answers from yourself

Whats the first thing you do after finishing a problem or problem set? If youre 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 youre 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, youre not doing yourself a favor by jumping right over to the answer. In particular, when you know that you dont know then dont 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 doesnt 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 its 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 wont always be possible sometimes it is just a guess!)

Got that? Okay, now go look at the answer. But wait! Dont read the solution yet just look at the answer first. Maybe youll 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 didnt; 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 dont 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 Ive never forgotten. (Although Ill 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, youd 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: Its About Learning How To Think

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

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