What to do when you’re confused in class

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

You’re sitting in class, paying attention (or not), and all of a sudden you have no idea what the teacher is saying. Or you’re doing your homework at home, and it hits you that you’re totally confused about the material. It happens to the best of us. 

Below, I share some strategies about what to do when you’re confused in class and when you’re doing your work at home. The main takeaway is that you have to do something – it’s not okay to do nothing and hope the confusion passes. It won’t.

What to do when you’re confused in class:

Which strategy you use to ask for help depends on the size of the class, the class format (lecture? small group? lab?), and your personal comfort level. Also, I can’t write this post without suggesting you watch my video about asking for help – good tips in there too.

1. Raise your hand and ask the teacher to repeat what he or she said. It’s important to ask for clarification right away, but you might have to wait for a pause in the conversation. If you become confused while taking notes in class, use a symbol like a question mark in your notes to indicate where things got unclear. Try to fill in the gaps at a later point, preferably during class.

2. Wait for a lull in the conversation or after the mini-lesson or lecture is over, and approach the teacher. Keep it simple and direct, like “Hi, I actually got confused when you were talking about the lipid phosphate bilayer. Could you please explain that again?”

3. Ask a classmate to explain the material. They might explain it in a way that’s easier for you to understand.

4. Ask the teacher to give an example or do another problem set.

5. Try to identify exactly what you’re confused about. Be specific. The clearer and more direct your question, the clearer the answer will be.

6. Don’t wait. The longer you wait to ask for clarification, the more you’ll forget what you were confused about, and the harder it will be for you to get the right help.

What to do when you’re confused outside of class:

1. Don’t ignore or deny your confusion. If you’re confused about one thing, you’ll be confused about everything related to it.

2. Google what you’re confused about. Search by Google Images or search by a certain file type (pdf, PowerPoint, etc.) by using Google’s Advanced Search feature. Also, use Google Scholar instead of regular Google if you‘re looking for academic results. You may have to try out a few different keyword search terms to get what you’re looking for, but the answer is in there.

3. Find the information by going back into your class notes or slides. You may not love this strategy, but it’s what people do.

4. Find the answer in your textbook. Use the glossary in the back to guide you.

5. Ask a friend.

6. Identify what exactly you’re confused about. Be clear, specific, and direct so you get a clear and direct answer.

7. If you can’t find the answer yourself and it’s too late to ask someone, then write down your question and ask the teacher later. Or write them an email using these strategies. Again, be sure to identify exactly what you’re confused about, and avoid general language like “I need help” or “I’m confused.”

Learning new things is supposed to be challenging. You’re supposed to feel confused and unsure and uncomfortable from time to time. Getting confused is not the problem. The problem is not knowing what to do when you’re confused in class, or denying your confusion altogether. 

Recognize it, admit it, and then do what you have to do to fix it. That’s a major life skill right there, my friends.

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