Being okay with confusion

I do a one minute paper for most of my library instruction sessions, where I ask students: what was the most useful or interesting they learned, what remains confusing or unclear. I also give them the space to add any additional comments or questions they have. Most leave that section blank, or provide quick feedback, like good job! Or thanks for the presentation! One time, a student wrote that the session made them more confused and more stressed about their upcoming assignment than before — I felt awful, and worried that as an instructor, I failed the student.  

When I’m feeling insecure about my teaching, I worry about this a lot. I worry that I’ve made an information literacy concept too complex and too hard to digest. My worries aren’t limited to classroom teaching. I worry too, when I’m providing reference help, particularly when it feels like I did not give the student the answer or solution they were looking for. 

In response, I’ve thought a lot about how I can communicate more clearly, and simplify my explanations. I’ve worked to incorporate more examples and make my lessons easier to understand. But after this past month of teaching multiple information literacy sessions on source evaluation and identifying scholarly sources, I’ve been thinking a lot about how learning doesn’t necessarily lead to more clarity. 

Many of the undergraduate classes I visit, specify what type of source students should use for their assignment. These sources are also described in multiple ways: scholarly sources, academic sources, peer-reviewed sources, secondary sources, primary articles, etc. I find myself trying to interpret what each assignment requirement means, and it varies depending on the class and discipline. For example, are textbooks scholarly sources? What if your textbook is a scholarly monograph that’s designed for use in undergraduate classrooms? Is a peer-reviewed student journal a scholarly source? Is a research article a primary or secondary source (why does it change depending on the discipline)? If a theoretical text doesn’t have citations, is it not a scholarly source? Although I know what these sources are, the answer can be complex, involving a critical understanding of disciplinary context and how academia and society value specific types of authority. 

In an effort to make identifying scholarly sources easy to understand, I fear that a potential takeaway of my lesson was the sources (peer-reviewed articles) you need for your assignment is good and other sources are bad. If that’s the case, even if students feel like they have a clear understanding of scholarly sources, I feel like I’ve failed them as an instructor. 

I want to bring complexity and critical thinking into my classrooms, but I also don’t want students to be discouraged or lost when doing their assignments. Since I usually only see the students once, I feel added pressure to get it right (you get one shot!).  I think discomfort and confusion are part of the learning process, but how do you know when the confusion is not generative?  

With a semester of teaching under my belt, I thought teaching information literacy would become easier. I am more confident about teaching in some ways, but more confused and uncertain in other ways. I’m grappling with my own feelings of confusion and discomfort — particularly, when I feel a class or reference interaction didn’t go well. 

I’ve been experimenting with journaling and recording my reflections, and in that process, I’ve been reminding myself that even if it felt like the class didn’t go well, that doesn’t mean that learning didn’t happen. Learning is complex and messy for both instructors and students. I’m working through embracing the fact that confusion is stressful, but wading through that discomfort can be rewarding and transformative!

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