Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 12:56 PM ET, 03/11/2010

Helping students know what they don’t know-Part 3

By Valerie Strauss

Here’s the third part of the article by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia, about why and how students can feel that they understand material when they really don’t. It was first published in the American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers. Willingham is also author of the book "Why Don't Students Like School?" You can read the first part here and the second here.

By Daniel Willingham
What can be done to combat spurious feelings of knowing in students? Remedies center on jostling students away from a reliance on familiarity and partial access as indices of their knowledge, and encouraging (or requiring) them to test just how much knowledge they recall and understand.

Make it clear to students that the standard of “knowing” is the “ability to explain to others,” not “understanding when explained by others.”

I have found the following analogy helpful in explaining the difference in the two types of knowing:

Require students to articulate what they know in writing or orally, thereby making what they know and don’t know explicit, and therefore easier to evaluate, and easier to build on or revise.

Suppose that you’ve just gone over a rather tricky point in class. You want to be sure that they’ve understood the lesson. As we all know, asking “Does everyone understand the main point here?” yields only silence. Calling on one student makes it clear to that student whether or not he or she understands the main point, but brings little benefit to other students.

You and a friend are watching a movie that only you have seen before. As the plot unfolds, each event, even those meant to be surprising, seems predictable and familiar. Yet if your friend asks you, “How does it end?” you can’t quite remember. To truly know about a movie (or a mathematical concept or historical event), you must be able to discuss it in your own words.

An alternative is to have students pair off and then take turns explaining the main idea to each other. (This will work best if the teacher provides clear criteria by which students can judge each other’s answers; otherwise it can be a case of the blind leading the blind.)

The process of having to explain aloud to someone else makes it clear to students whether or not they understand what they are meant to understand. The process breaks the ice of silence, and if the teacher afterwards asks if there are questions, students are usually more willing to ask for help. Indeed, observing the pairs will usually make the extent of students’ understanding clear to the teacher.

Begin each day (or selected days) with a written self test.

The teacher may pose a few questions reviewing the material from the previous lesson. The success of this strategy depends on students writing their answers rather than having the class shout out answers or calling on students who raise their hands. Again, the question you pose will likely lead to a feeling of knowing in most students because it is material they were recently taught. If, moments after hearing the question, they hear the answer provided by another student, they will likely think, “Sure, right, I knew that” because of this feeling of knowing. To get an accurate assessment of memory, each student must see whether he or she can recollect it.

Ask students to do self tests at home or in preparing for examinations.

For students who are a bit older, teachers can facilitate this process by organizing “study buddies” who agree to meet at least once before an examination, or at regular intervals, to test one another. Study buddies ask one another questions to ensure that they understand the material, and then go over whatever they don’t understand.

This procedure brings several benefits. It’s another way to force students to actually recall information, rather than to simply recognize what is in the book. The process of generating questions for a partner is also an excellent way to encourage students to think deeply about the material; it is tantamount to asking oneself, “What is really important here? What must I know about this material?” That students pose questions for each other means that students will share their perspectives on the material — a point that one student missed or understood dimly will be supported by the other student’s knowledge.

Help students prepare for examinations with study guides.

All students, but especially younger students, need help identifying the core information to be tested. Teacher-developed study guides are an excellent way to be sure that students are aware of the critical questions and key elements of the answers. Whether they study alone or with a buddy, the guide assures that all students will tackle the most difficult concepts or materials being tested.

Part 1: Why students think they understand material when they don't

Part 2: How students end up tricking themselves about what they know and don't know


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | March 11, 2010; 12:56 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, helping kids learn, the brain  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: How students trick themselves about what they know--Part 2
Next: Education Department buying 27 shotguns


Wow, great, great article -- puts words on something I've been watching all year with DD, and not quite known how to address. She's 8, and they're learning a lot of basic math operations -- started with multi-digit addition and subtraction (carrying/borrowing), then on to multiplication, and now they're on long division. So it's a big year, and she needs to internalize a lot of basic concepts that she will use for the rest of her life. And what happens? She goes through the intense week or two of learning the basic concepts, and then proclaims that she knows it -- and then, when she misses stuff on the tests, she is (a) upset and feels stupid, yet (b) gets angry with us when we try to walk through it to help her understand where she went wrong.

I really like the idea of asking her to explain it to me. That seems like a really effective way to get past the defensiveness and help us all see what she really does know so we can fill in those gaps.

Posted by: laura33 | March 12, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Test taking is a skill that can be developed -- especially if one focuses on thinking about their thinking processes (metacognition).

As a Math peak performance coach (and former engineer / MBA), I help students to know what they know and know what they don' know where the traps are and what could go wrong. Often students do know the material better than their test scores show -- points can be lost due to not reading/answering the questions carefully!!

Engineering school taught us this attention to detail --please click on this link to my mathconfidence blog:

Robin Schwartz
Author, Build Math Confidence monthly e-newsletter

Posted by: mathconfidence | March 12, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company