Understanding difficulties and resulting confusion in learning: an integrative review

Jason M. Lodge*, Gregor Kennedy, Lori Lockyer, Amael Arguel, Mariya Pachman

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    21 Citations (Scopus)
    11 Downloads (Pure)


    Difficulties are often an unavoidable but important part of the learning process. This seems particularly so for complex conceptual learning. Challenges in the learning process are however, particularly difficult to detect and respond to in educational environments where growing class sizes and the increased use of digital technologies mean that teachers are unable to provide nuanced and personalized feedback and support to help students overcome their difficulties. Individual differences, the specifics of the learning activity, and the difficulty of giving individual feedback in large classes and digital environments all add to the challenge of responding to student difficulties and confusion. In this integrative review, we aim to explore difficulties and resulting emotional responses in learning. We will review the primary principles of cognitive disequilibrium and contrast these principles with work on desirable difficulties, productive failure, impasse driven learning, and pure discovery-based learning. We conclude with a theoretical model of the zones of optimal and sub-optimal confusion as a way of conceptualizing the parameters of productive and non-productive difficulties experienced by students while they learn.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number49
    Pages (from-to)1-10
    Number of pages10
    JournalFrontiers in Education
    Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2018

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • cognitive disequilibrium
    • confusion
    • desirable difficulties
    • digital learning environments
    • discovery-based learning
    • impasse driven learning
    • productive failure


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