The Role of Confusion in Your GMAT Prep

With regard to the GMAT, raw intellectual horsepower helps, but it is not everything. Manhattan Prep’s Stacey Koprince teaches you how to perform at your best on test day by using some common sense.

That seems like it should be a typo. Maybe I meant Confucius, the Chinese teacher and philosopher? No, I really do mean confusion. Journalist Annie Murphy Paul contributed a post to NPR’s Mind/Shift blog: “Why Confusion Can Be a Good Thing.”

Why Is Confusion Good?

Murphy Paul supports her thesis with an important point: When we do not know the “right” way to do something, we open up our minds to many potential paths—and sometimes an alternate potential path is better than the “official” path.

When a test such as the GMAT is concerned, the discomfort inherent in figuring out that best path allows us to determine why a certain approach is preferable. That knowledge, in turn, helps us to know when we can reuse a certain line of thinking or solution process on a different (but similar) question in the future.

How Can I Use Confusion to Help My Prep?

Murphy Paul offers three suggestions (the following quotes are from the article; the rest is just me):

(1) “Expose yourself to confusing material.”

On the GMAT, you have no choice: you are going to be exposing yourself to confusing material every day. So I will tweak Murphy Paul’s suggestion slightly: embrace the confusion. Rather than feeling annoyed or frustrated when that feeling of confusion creeps in, tell yourself, “Okay, I am on track here. I am going to figure this out—and when I do, I am going to remember it, because my current confusion is actually going to help me remember better once I do know what I am doing!”

(2) “Withhold the answers from yourself.”

Sometimes looking at the answer immediately is appropriate. If you are doing drill sets and you want to make sure that you learn from one problem before trying the next, then check the solution immediately.

Other times, though, you are not doing yourself a favor by jumping right to the answer. In particular, when you know that you do not know… then do not look at the answer right away! Struggle with it for a while first.

Look stuff up in your strategy guides/books. Ask a friend or search a forum. Spend as much time as you want, then pick an answer—even if it is just a guess—and have a rationale for why you eliminated the answers that you eliminated. If possible, also have a rationale for why you chose the answer that you did.

Got that? Okay, now go look at the answer. But wait! Do not read the solution yet—just look at the answer first. Maybe you will want to go look at the problem again because

  • you were sure you got it right, but you did not; can you find the mistake?
  • you guessed and got lucky; was that pure dumb luck, or were you actually able to increase your odds via a strong educated guess? Alternatively, maybe you knew more than you thought you did!
  • you did get it wrong, but your knowledge of the correct answer prompts an idea about how to do or think about the problem.

(3) “Test yourself before you learn.”

This approach lets us know what we know and, more importantly, what we do not know going into our study of that lesson or chapter, and that can actually help us to learn more effectively.

I suggest starting a new chapter with a few of the problems listed as practice or drills at the end of the chapter. If those go well, then try a lower-numbered Official Guide problem. Keep going until you hit a couple of substantial roadblocks. Then dive into the chapter with a serious curiosity to figure out how to get around those roadblocks!

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