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DI, ZPD, and Productive Confusion, Oh My! What They Could Mean for Instruction

April 5, 2018

This academic year has been unique for me with regard to instruction in that I have taught two or three instruction sessions for different courses during which I have worked with some of the same students (in more than one course). I even had a day when I saw a specific student in the morning in one course and then again in a different course in the afternoon. While I tailor my instruction according to specific course outcomes and assignments, there are fundamental strategies and concepts related to finding and using appropriate and credible information that remain the same. I started thinking about the student who is spending over two hours of instructional time with me on the same day or within the same semester and contemplating how I could ensure that the second session extended beyond just a duplication of approaches and strategies applied to a slightly different content area. How could I avoid that student experiencing the “been there, done that” syndrome? This combined with a recent effort among faculty librarians at my institution to be more intentional about assessing our instruction sessions, has prompted the reflection in this post.


In considering the question of how to engage capable students through multiple library instruction sessions, three concepts from my current and past teaching experience emerged: “differentiation” or “differentiated instruction” (“DI”), “zone of proximal development” (“ZPD”), and “productive confusion.” While there is certainly overlap among these ideas, especially between DI and ZPD, I will discuss each of them separately. I should note that there are also areas of intersection among these concepts and other learning theories and instructional approaches.


DI is an instructional strategy I learned about from language arts teachers when I was a middle school library media teacher in California in the late 1990’s. An author whose work frequently appears when doing a search of academic and professional literature on “differentiated instruction” or “differentiation” is Carol Ann Tomlinson. In a more recent publication, Tomlinson (2008) works with Kay Brimijoin and Lane Narvaez in a book entitled The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning. In overly simplified and practical terms, I will describe DI as a constructivist teaching strategy, which involves offering students choices in learning activities and assessments. These choices allow the students to select assignments and evaluations which both reflect their learning preferences (modalities) and their abilities. This latter part of the description is the piece that always rivets my attention –Students who are more capable (however you want to define this) are able and encouraged to do more challenging work. [The converse is also true–so students, who are less proficient, can choose assignments and assessments that reflect their abilities and preferences, but that is not my main focus here.]


Much of the literature on DI is focused on K-12 schools; and there is a significant amount of work investigating its benefits for ELL/ESL students and those with various other learning challenges. Like the well-known approach to instructional planning in higher education, universal design for learning (UDL), the studies have indicated benefits to the whole spectrum of K-12 learners. That said, for the purpose of this blog post, I would like to target the advanced end of the learner continuum. While there seems to be less research on DI’s use with college students, I am proposing that differentiation is not just beneficial to children, but rather also has merit for adult learners as well. One example of an article that does address DI and university students is Matamoros’s (2016) “Differentiated Instruction in Information Literacy Courses in Urban Universities: How Flipping the Classroom Can Transform a Course and Help Reach All Students” published in Urban Library Journal. This article, while interesting, addresses DI in the context of an entire course dedicated to information literacy, not in a one-shot or twice-a-semester information literacy session.


In my search for resources on differentiation, I was reminded by Subban’s (2006) article “Differentiated Instruction: A Research Basis” of a closely related idea. She cites Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning, and more specifically, his concept of the “zone of proximal development” (pp. 936-937) or ZPD. Vygotsky’s (1978) ZPD is explained very effectively in a passage by Doolittle (1997):


Vygotsky believed that an individual’s immediate potential for cognitive growth is limited on the lower end by that which he or she can accomplish independently, and on the upper end by that which he or she can accomplish with the help of a more knowledgeable other such as a peer, tutor, or teacher. This region of immediate potential for cognitive growth between the upper and lower limits is the zone of proximal development (as cited in Doolittle, 1997, p. 85).


An extrapolation of Vygotsky’s concept informs us that for effective new learning and growth to occur, students cannot just stay stagnant at the lower end of this continuum. Taking this one step further, as a teacher librarian facilitating information literacy instruction for college students, I should aim for students to be actively working in the ZPD. In the cases of those students who have had multiple library instruction sessions, in order for them to learn, I should be challenging them each session rather than relying on more mundane repetition of previously introduced skills in the name of providing extra practice. Subban (2006) touches on my concern as she addresses “the dangers of teaching to the middle” (pp. 938-939). I am fairly sure there are times when many of us doing information literacy instruction plan our sessions so that we think the “average” student, or even the student with the least knowledge and experience, will “get it.” But this can be severely limiting, not to mention, frustrating and boring for students who can do more.


One last defense of pushing strong students at least slightly beyond their comfort zones is encompassed in the more recently introduced concept  (or perhaps just the more current “buzzword”) of “productive confusion.” Jeremiah Sullins, the director of Harding University’s Center for Cognitive Studies, has been exploring the correlation between specific “academic” emotions and learning. One area of particular interest to him and his researchers is the positive role that confusion can play in the amount of long-term learning that students experience (Sullins, Neely, Davis, & Acuff, 2015). Another scholar, Sidney D’Mello, currently of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has also examined this phenomenon. He works in the areas of computer science, engineering and psychology to explore the role of emotions and affect in learning (D’Mello, 2018). The central tenet of productive confusion is that students have stronger long-term learning outcomes when they have had to experience some level of struggle during their learning. Sullins, Neely, Davis, and Acuff (2015) are quick to clarify that there is a difference between “productive confusion” and “hopeless confusion,” with the latter being detrimental to learning and development. The challenge for instructors is to find the “sweet spot” when working with students –that place where the students have to engage in some degree of critical thinking and/or problem solving, but the task requirements cannot be so  advanced that students are quickly overwhelmed and frustrated. Being on-hand and engaged as the instructor/librarian ready to provide additional direction and scaffolding as needed seems to also be important.


Incorporating DI, pushing students into their ZPD, and creating an environment conducive to productive confusion requires a significant amount of planning for the instructor. As an instruction librarian faced with doing mostly one-shots during the course of a semester, it can be tempting to categorize such instructional approaches as impossible. However, if you have been able to cultivate positive relationships between yourself and the course faculty for whom you are doing library instruction sessions, there are some chances for incorporating these methods into learning activities for students. Technology and using a flipped approach can provide one solution, as suggested by the Matamoros (2016) article. Requiring students to review content online and complete activities practicing the more rote skills outside of class meeting time allows in-class time to be spent problem-solving and engaging in authentic research scenarios. Getting this to happen in a fully online or blended course may prove to be easier than for face-to-face settings. Some institutions, such as Cal State, Fullerton, have created digital badges in their online learning management systems which students earn as they progress through foundational information literacy tasks (O’Neill, 2017). Then any in-class, face-to-face or online synchronous instructional time can be focused on more active, challenging, and collaborative learning.


Despite the difficulties involved, I believe some aspect of differentiated instruction can be adapted for use in a one-shot information literacy session. For example, I could potentially create a set of activities, tiered by difficulty, and then challenge students to progress as far up the tiered pyramid as they can. An exercise on generating possible keywords and phrases to use in a database search could be on the lower end of the continuum, while finding an article that includes information that a student could use in support of a thesis statement and then highlighting a specific passage within the article indicating where s/he might obtain citable information would be on the upper end. For such an approach to be effective, I would likely need to think about the activities in the middle of the easy to most difficult part of the spectrum as aligning with my primary learning outcomes for the instruction.


Creating meaningful information literacy learning opportunities for all students in the context of increasingly diverse classrooms is not a challenge to be taken lightly. By “teaching to the middle” (Subban, 2006), we lose learners at both the low end and the high end of the continuum. If we fail to provide challenge to those who can handle it, they are likely to learn little–boredom can be incredibly unproductive. I also take some solace in the fact that not all confusion has a negative impact on learning. When I periodically demonstrate a search for a student’s topic during an instruction session (without having tried that specific search in advance) and find myself staring at a disappointing list of results, it is helpful to remind myself that when I am doing my own research, trial and error is often involved. Discussing ways to improve a failed or discouraging search with students may actually teach students more than doing a great search right from the first attempt.


Yes, using DI and nudging our students and ourselves into the ZPD while embracing productive confusion can be daunting and probably not do-able for every instruction session, but I would like to encourage you to give it a try at least in small ways. If you do, I would love to hear about how it turns out and how it affects students’ and your own level of engagement. Feel free to email me at or



D’Mello, S. (2018). Projects. Emotive Computing Lab. University of Colorado, Boulder. Retrieved from


Doolittle, P. E.  (1997). Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development as a theoretical foundation for cooperative learning. Journal on Excellence of College Teaching (8) 1, 83-103. Retrieved from


Matamoros, A. B. (2016). Differentiated instruction in information literacy courses in urban universities: How flipping the classroom can transform a course and help reach all students. Urban Library Journal, 22(1), 1–28. Retrieved from


O’Neill, L. (2017, March). Digital badges exposed: Technology behind a library badges program. Webcast session presented at the Association of College & Research Libraries Virtual Conference. Recording and other materials retrieved from


Subban, P. (2006). Differentiated instruction: A research basis. International Education Journal, 7(7), 935–947. Retrieved from


Sullins, J., Neely, D., Davis, T., & Acuff, S.. (2015). An exploratory look into the temporal aspects of productive versus hopeless confusion. Poster retrieved from


Tomlinson, C. A., Brimijoin, K. & Narvaez, L. (2008). The differentiated school: Making revolutionary changes in teaching and learning. [Google Books version]. Retrieved from

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