Working With Confusion

Confused? Here are some troubleshooting tips.

1) Did you read the material?

Note: dragging your eyes across the page and skimming don't count. Neither does reading only a part of the assignment. Did you really read the whole thing, really? REALLY? That's what we're asking here.

Yes, I actually read the material and I'm still confused.

Okay, then something else is up. Continue to number 2).

No, I gotta be honest, I looked at the first couple of pages and kinda walked away.

There's no other way to put this, you need to go back and read. If you find it hard to focus then make yourself say the words silently in your mind as though you were reading them out loud to an audience. If you cannot do that, then try actually reading the text out loud. It sounds crazy but it works. Whatever you do, DO NOT expect everything magically to become clear in class. Class is for working WITH the reading, i.e. analyzing it, dealing with questions that it raises, evaluating the arguments in it, and discussing the ideas we find there. My classes, at least, are IN NO WAY designed to provide a plain repetition of what the reading says. That, my friend, is NOT gonna happen. This is college. Time to get your reading pants on!

So you sat down and read the assignment. Good start. Still confused? THAT'S OKAY! Do NOT give up! Maybe it's that the following might be happening.

2) Is there a particular word or phrase in the text that's hanging you up?

If so, identify it specifically and look it up in a GOOD collegiate dictionary. (Keep reading if you aren't sure what a good dictionary is.)

Did that work?

Yes, the word was there and the sentence makes sense now.

Good! If you are still confused despite knowing what the troubling word meant, keep going to number 3).

No, either the word wasn't in the dictionary or it was, and the sentence still doesn't make sense!

If this is the case then here are some different possibilities that might explain the situation:

(A) The word is a common word being used in a technical way or in an unusual context. This happens more frequently than you think—especially in works that are more than fifty years old. If you think this is a source of your confusion then ask your instructor about this in class. Be sure you can reference the specific location of problematic word by page number and place on the page (e.g. right column, third paragraph). Also be prepared to give the definition you found and where you found it.

Don't be too let down if the dictionary fails you. Contextual considerations and technical usages are two reasons the reason why the dictionary is always a good first stop for figuring out the meaning of a word, but frequently a lousy final destination. Dictionaries only give guidelines for usage based on present, everyday practice. They do not establish eternally valid rules for what words mean in every conceivable context.

(B) The word is an uncommon word—probably it is a special term used mostly within a discipline. If you cannot find it in your dictionary then this is very likely. Follow the advice given above for asking your instructor about it.

(C) The word is from a foreign language, like Latin, Greek, German or French. You can look these up online and see if that helps. Bear in mind that once translated into English you may need to repeat the process of looking it up described here.

NOTE: Do NOT skip the step of actually looking the word up on your own time FIRST. Class time is limited and valuable. We need it to discuss the truly challenging ideas and arguments in the readings. Don't waste it by being too unmotivated to look a word up in a good dictionary.

A good dictionary, by the way, is one geared to the collegiate level of learning. Avoid wiki definitions and time-cheap half-measures like google searches. These can often turn up misleading answers that enhance confusion rather than helping to resolve it. If your instructor suggests a particular dictionary in the syllabus, then use that one as your go-to source. If you can't afford that one, then talk to a librarian. Librarians can help you find a copy of an appropriate collegiate dictionary if you cannot afford to purchase one for yourself.

Okay, so you've either sorted out the problem with the unknown term or it never was a problem to begin with for you. If you find that confusion lingers, what do you do? You quit, right? WRONG!!! NEVER QUIT!!! Instead consider this additional possibility:

3) Are you confused about something that's not a matter of language usage, for example, why the author is drawing a conclusion from a particular piece of evidence, or what point the author is trying to make with a particular illustration of an idea?

Here you need to consider a few possibilities: It may be that you do not understand the author's reasoning. On the other hand, it may also be that you just disagree with it. There is also the possibility that you flat just don't like it. These are all different things, that have to be handled in different ways:

If you do not understand the author's reasoning, then there are some things you can try:

(1) Try working out a couple options for what you think the author might be trying say. Usually, one of these will be at least partially correct!

(2) Imagine explaining the author's reasoning to someone else who is trying to learn it. You may find that as you explain it to someone else, it becomes much clearer for you.

(3) Try diagramming the reasoning, or making a concept map. Your author can suggest different methods for doing this if you need help. Some people are visual thinkers, and strategies like these help them see relationships that they might otherwise miss when working with text alone.

(4) If none of the above works, you may need to ask the instructor or a peer who understands the material to see if they can clarify the author's reasoning for you. Make sure you can locate specifically the paragraph(s) containing the problematic reasoning, and explain the source of your confusion. It is strongly recommended that you ask this kind of question in class, because if you are confused about something, then there is a very good chance that you are not the only one. Others will benefit from your question even if they are unwilling to ask it. Additionally, by asking your question in class you will (a) alert the instructor to a issues that many in the class may be having with the material and (b) create an opportunity for the instructor to give needed additional explanation of the material to everyone. Have courage! Speak up! That's why we have class!

If you just disagree with the author's reasoning, that's fine! Do two things. First, write out, as clearly and in the most neutral terms that you can, what you think the author's idea is. Second, write down your reasons for disagreeing with the author and raise them in class. Note: If you cannot explain the author's idea neutrally, or if you cannot articulate any real reasons for disagreeing (e.g. you find yourself saying things like "I just think it's wrong" or "That just doesn't seem right to me.") then one of two things might be going on: Either (A) you may not really understand the author's reasoning, or (B) you may just not like the author's reasoning.

If (A) is the case and you don't understand, then follow the advice given above about what to do when you don't understand a piece of reasoning. If (B) is the case and you just don't like it, then read the advice below.

If you just flat just don't like the author's reasoning, well, that's fine, but bear in mind that merely liking or disliking a position has absolutely no bearing on the whether or not it's right. It may be right, even if you don't like it. (Also, it may be wrong even if you do like it!)

If this is where you are it is important to remember the following:

  • You can't reasonably disagree with or dislike a position you don't understand. Disagreement or disliking prior to understanding is evidence of bias and/or prejudice towards the view. These will get in the way of your learning and are to be avoided.
  • Disliking a position does not disprove it—not even "for you". No single person has the power to dictate what is true or what is false.
  • Having an emotional reaction to a position is not the same as understanding it.
  • Sometimes an initially strong emotional reaction to a position is a sign that you need to spend MORE time understanding it, not less. Emotions, intuitions (i.e. hunches, suspicions, guesses and the like), and reasons are not as unconnected as we often think. For this reason, our intuitions sometimes are revealed to us in the form of an emotional reactions that, when explored turn out to be connected to good reasons. Unfortunately, prejudice and bias often take the form of emotional reaction too. Which one are you experiencing? Is it a good "detective's hunch" or just a knee-jerk, negative emotional reaction to something hard and unfamiliar? The only way to know is to do the kind of work outlined in (A) and (B) above.

So you've gone through all the above and you still feel that you don't understand the material. "I just don't understand any of this!" You might be saying to yourself. So now you get to quit right? Just throw in the towel, call it day, let it be, etc.? NO!!!! NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS…


At this point, it's time to get some extra help in developing a plan of attack to learn the material. Do NOT passively and silently wait for understanding to arrive in class! Set an appointment, and see your instructor during office hours. Before you do, however, bear in mind the following:

  • You wouldn't get good treatment if you went to a doctor and started waving your arms around saying "Pain! Pain". The doctor would need more information to help you. Similarly, your instructor needs more information to help you with the material. Try to have at least two or three good questions. If you don't, you're basically walking into your instructor's office, waving your arms and saying "Confusion! Confusion!" Try to help your instructor help you. If you've gone through the tips on this sheet, you should be able to raise some specific issues that your and your instructor can work on together to help you move forward.
  • Not every issue with learning has an academic cause. Be honest with yourself about whether or not your confusion is genuine confusion about the material or just lack of motivation, disinterest, insecurity, anxiety about other things in your life, or poor time management. Consider the following two quotes:

"I'm tired/bored/can't focus on this and/or just don't feel like doing all this work. Can't you just explain it to me?"

"I'm doing all the reading and work and extra studying on my own too. My grades are okay but I still don't feel like I'm getting it!"

  • If either of these quotes sounds like something you might say then you may want seriously to consider whether or not you have some non-academic issues getting in the way of your learning. In any case, you should know that an instructor can only be expected to help you with the confusion—and really, your instructor can only do that after you've made a serious attempt yourself at understanding the material. If your problem area lies somewhere outside the class then, while your instructor might sometimes be able to suggest helpful strategies or other avenues by which you might seek help, in the end you will have to make the effort to remedy such issues yourself.
  • If your instructor gives you tips and pointers, or critique regarding your study methods or performance on the tasks in class, listen to what they have to say. They are trying to help you. No one likes to hear that they aren't doing something right, but it's better to have one's strategies adjusted and succeed (even if it involves a little unintentional bruising to the ego) than it is to persist on a path that leads to nowhere. Honest feedback is a gift. Treat it as such.
  • When you go to see your instructor bring everything you have that is relevant to what you want to know. This means that if your question involves performance in the whole course, bring your notes, text, and any work you have that has been returned to you. (Make sure you've read all the comments on returned work before you set this appointment! Many times the answers you seek about how to do better are there, just waiting to be read.)


Confusion is as necessary and essential a part of learning as sweat and muscle pain are to exercising. Think of it as a sign of educational health. Confusion means that you are working, not that you are failing. If a workout doesn't cause a little physical discomfort then it isn't doing your body any good. You aren't getting stronger or healthier. You're just hanging around in gym clothes. It's the same with learning. If a class doesn't cause you a little cognitive discomfort as you try to learn new facts, methods, and techniques, then it isn't challenging you and you aren't learning much of anything new. So if you get confused, don't panic! Just follow the advice above, apply some effort, and overcome it. You may not erase your confusion entirely, but you will make progress. In the end, that's what it's all about!


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License