Harnessing the Power of Uncertainty in the Classroom

I don’t believe many would fault teachers for believing uncertainty is the kryptonyte of learning.  It makes sense that teachers are here to provide clarity in a murky world.  We should clear up any misconceptions and provide answers to questions when our students are confused.  I mean, the faster our students know the correct answer, the sooner we can move on to tackling the next standard…right?  But is there a place for uncertainty in the classroom?  Is there power in letting your students hang out on the edge of that educational canyon for a bit?  Just to see if they can figure it out themself?  In their paper, Harnessing the Power of Uncertainty to Enhance Learning, Overoye and Storm leap from that canyon wall to explore how uncertainty could lead to real gains in learning.  They contend that it is in “the attempting to overcome the uncertainty that learning has the greatest opportunity to occur.”

Uncertainty is discussed through two conditions:  uncertainty through inquiry and uncertainty through contradiction.  Uncertainty through inquiry involves students being required to generate information, as opposed to receive it.  Uncertainty through contradiction occurs when students are confronted with information contradictory to their belief or understanding and have to distinguish the correct from the incorrect.  No matter the condition, Overoye and Storm set forth a basic principle: uncertainty is not a state to be avoided.  When used correctly, it should be employed “as a vehicle to effectively engage and enhance student learning.”

The authors further dissect the two conditions of uncertainty, stating differing types of inquiry that can lead to gains when students are faced with uncertainty having to create answers to questions or prompts or when met with information that contradicts their beliefs.

Uncertainty Through Inquiry

Testing is a first type of uncertainty through inquiry.  Using the retrieval process of memories to recall information is a researched strategy that can lead to gains across many content areas and testing types.  This testing effect often leads to greater gains on more difficult tests than on easier tests, in particular when testing is delayed.  When creating answers for either formative or summative assessments, an uncertainty may set in with the students.  Please see The Learning Scientists for more information on differing types of testing and their positive effects.   

A second type of uncertainty through inquiry is interrogative questioning.  This strategy implores students to answer questions while they are studying.  For example, when using elaborative interrogation, students are led to generate their own explanations and reasons about certain concepts.  Also, self-explanation, as a type of interrogative questioning, requires students to relate their current knowledge to new information or discuss how they solved a prompt.  This questioning or self-explanation forces the students to interact and focus on the text or material, which can lead to an uncertainty that can produce curiosity in the students to further research material, re-read material, etc. for clarification.

A last form of uncertainty by inquiry is generation, which asks students to create new information, often times with uncertainty being a byproduct of this generation.  This allows material to be better recalled later, perhaps because of the intrinsic nature of the generation.  Also, research has shown generation enables students to be better learners in the future.  In a way that other forms of practice don’t allow,  generation gives the students a taste of learning how to learn.  

Uncertainty Through Contradiction

Through inquiry (testing, interrogative questioning, and generating), students create answers, ideas, concepts, etc.  With this level of thinking, students are apt to make mistakes.  When students are allowed to make mistakes and are later made aware of their errors, research has shown this actually facilitates learning, calling it error-facilitating learning.  Through error-facilitating learning, when students are in a place of uncertainty because of their incorrect answer, they are in a position to more effectively encode and remember the correct information.  Furthermore, when students give a cue before being told the correct answer, they perform better when later tested than if they had simply studied without generating incorrect responses.  Does the level of confidence the student has in their answer matter?  According to research, and perhaps contrary to intuitive thought, incorrect answers given with high confidence are actually more readily corrected by feedback than those given with low confidence.

Doesn’t this contradiction cause a confusion in the student’s understanding that can create a certain level of proactive interference?  Actually, no.  As long as the correct answer is eventually given, the confusion of the incorrect belief enhances learning.  The confusion appears to challenge the student’s schema and forces the creation of a new understanding; a theory called cognitive disequilibrium.  Another case for contradictions and confusion is the idea that critical thinking skills and scientific reasoning are enhanced.  Allowing for confusion allows students to challenge their beliefs and create new ideas or ways of thinking that may be difficult to cultivate otherwise.  This idea of learning how to learn and assimilate new information to accommodate schemas is also very transferrable from subject to subject and is even a much needed skill throughout life.  

Allowing for uncertainty in the classroom seems ironic and somewhat hypocritical of the outdated beliefs of school.  Students enter our classroom to learn.  Teachers should show them the correct answers so they can commit them to memory and regurgitate the answer when needed.  While this may lead to more memorization, if certain learning strategies are present, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a better learner.  Placing students in a state of limbo with their beliefs and allowing them to fester in the uncertainty of their knowledge leads to better learning and to the cultivation of better thinkers.  As Overoye and Storm conclude, “Education is about more than learning facts; it is about teaching students to evaluate what they know and do not know and to think critically about what the learn.”

Overoye, Acacia L., and Benjamin C. Storm. “Harnessing the Power of Uncertainty to Enhance Learning.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science 1.2 (2015): 140-48.

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