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Posted at 12:50 PM ET, 03/11/2010

Willingham: Why students think they know material they don't--Part 1

By Valerie Strauss

Every week University of Virginia Professor Daniel Willingham writes for this blog about education through his eyes as a cognitive scientist and researcher. This week we are doing something a little different.

This Willingham article, which I will publish in three separate posts, was first published in the American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers. It gets at the heart of an issue that countless teachers and parents -- and kids -- face at one time or another: Why we think we understand when we don’t.

In this first post, Willingham talks about why the phenomenon happens. The second part lists how students wind up thinking they know material they really don’t. And the third details ways in which adults can help students in this regard. You can see the whole article here.

It is long, but well worth the time.

By Daniel Willingham
Question: Very often, students will think they understand a body of material. Believing that they know it, they stop trying to learn more. But, come test time, it turns out they really don’t know the material. Can cognitive science tell us anything about why students are commonly mistaken about what they know and don’t know? Are there any strategies teachers can use to help students better estimate what they know?

Answer: There are multiple cues by which each of us assess what we know and don’t know. But these cues are fallible, which explains why students sometimes think that they know material better than their classroom performance indicates.

* * *

How do we know that we know something?

If I said to you, “Could you name the first President of the United States?” you would say, “Yes, I could tell you that.” On the other hand, if I said, “Could you tell me the names of the two series of novels written by Anthony Trollope?” you might say, “No.” What processes go into your judgment of what you know?

The answer may at first seem obvious: You look in your memory and see what’s there. For the first question, you determine that your memory contains the fact that George Washington was the first U.S. President, so you answer “yes.” For the second question, if you determine that your memory contains little information about Trollope (and doesn’t include the novel series named Barchester and Palliser), you would answer “no.”

But, if the mechanism were really so simple, we would seldom — if ever — make mistakes about what we know. In fact, we do make such mistakes. For example, we have all confidently thought that we knew how to get to a destination, but then when put to the test by actually having to drive there, we realize that we don’t know. The route may seem familiar, but that’s a far cry from recalling every turn and street name.

The feeling of knowing has an important role in school settings because it is a key determinant of student studying. Suppose a third-grader has been studying the Vikings with the goal of understanding where they were from and what they did. At what point does the third-grader say to him or herself: “I understand this. If the teacher asks me, ‘Who were the Vikings?’ I could give a good answer.”

Every teacher has seen that students’ assessments of their own knowledge are not always accurate. Indeed, this inaccuracy can be a source of significant frustration for students on examinations. The student is certain that he or she has mastered some material, yet performs poorly on a test, and may, therefore, conclude that the test was not fair. The student has assessed his or her knowledge and concluded that it is solid, yet the examination indicates that it is not. What happened? What cues do students use to decide that they know something?

Cognitive science research has shown that two cues are especially important in guiding our judgments of what we know: (1) our “familiarity” with a given body of information and (2) our “partial access” to that information.

I’ll discuss how these two cues can lead students to believe that they know material when they don’t

“Familiarity” Fools Our Mind into Thinking We Know More than We Do

The idea of familiarity is, well, familiar to all of us. We have all had the experience of seeing someone and sensing that her face is familiar but being unable to remember who that person is or how we know her.

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations.

For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him.

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

For example, it has been shown that if some key words of a question are familiar, you are more likely to think that you know the answer to the question. In one experiment demonstrating this effect, subjects were exposed to a variety of word pairs (e.g. “golf” and “par”) and then asked to complete a short task that required them to think at least for a moment about the words.

Next, subjects saw a set of trivia questions, some of which used words that the subjects had just been exposed to in the previous task. Subjects were asked to make a rapid judgment as to whether or not they knew the answer to the question — and then they were to provide the answer.

If the trivia question contained key words from the previous task (e.g., “What term in golf refers to a score of one under par on a particular hole?”), those words should have seemed familiar, and may have led to a feeling of knowing. Indeed, researcher L.M. Reder found that subjects were likely to say that they knew the answer to a question containing familiar words, irrespective of whether they could actually answer the question. For questions in which words had not been rendered familiar, subjects were fairly accurate in rapidly assessing their knowledge.

A similar effect was observed in an experiment using arithmetic problems. On each trial of this experiment, subjects saw an addition or multiplication problem (e.g., 81 + 35) and they had to rapidly decide whether they would calculate the answer or answer from memory. If they chose to calculate, they had 20 seconds to do so; if they chose to answer from memory, they had just 1.4 seconds. Sometimes problems repeated, so subjects might have had the answer to a complex problem in memory.

Subjects were paid depending on their speed and accuracy, so the decision about whether or not to calculate was important. As in the trivia question experiment, subjects were accurate in knowing when they could retrieve an answer from memory and when they needed to calculate it — except in one situation, when the experimenters repeated a two-digit problem but changed the operation (e.g., addition to multiplication). In that case, subjects were just as likely to try to retrieve an answer from memory for a problem they had actually just seen (e.g., 81 + 35) as they were for a problem they had not just seen but which used familiar operands (e.g., 81 – 35). The experimenters argued that subjects made their judgment about whether to calculate based on the familiarity of the problem components, not on the whether the answer was in memory.

“Partial Access”: Our Mind Is Fooled When We Know Part of the Material or Related Material

A second basis for the feeling of knowing is “partial access,” which refers to the knowledge that an individual has of either a component of the target material or information closely related to the target material.

Suppose I ask you a question and the answer doesn’t immediately come to mind, but some related information does. For example, when I ask for the names of the two series of Trollope novels, you readily recall Barchester and you know I mentioned the other series earlier; you even remember that it started with the letter P, and you believe it had two or three syllables.

Your quick retrieval of this partial information will lead to a feeling of knowing the relevant information — even if Palliser is not actually in your memory.

The effect of partial access was demonstrated in an experiment in which subjects were asked difficult trivia questions. If subjects couldn’t answer a particular question, they were asked to judge whether they would recognize the answer if they saw it (i.e., to make a feeling-of-knowing judgment).

The interesting twist: Some of the questions used categories for which lots of examples came to mind for their subjects (e.g., composers) and matching questions used categories for which few examples came to mind (e.g., choreographers) — that is, these subjects could easily think of at least a few famous composers, but couldn’t think of more than one or two choreographers, if any.

The results showed that whether or not they could actually recognize the right answer, people gave higher feeling-of-knowing judgments to questions using many-example categories (e.g., “Who composed the music for the ballet Swan Lake?”) than to questions using few-example categories (e.g., “Who choreographed the ballet Swan Lake?”).

The experimenters argued that when people see the composer question, the answer doesn’t come to mind, but the names of several composers do. This related information leads to a feeling of knowing. Informally, we could say that subjects conclude (consciously or unconsciously), “I can’t retrieve the Swan Lake composer right now, but I certainly seem to know a lot about composers. With a little more time, the answer to the question could probably be found.”

On the other hand, the choreographer question brings little information to mind and, therefore, no feeling of knowing.

These studies, and dozens of others like them, confirm two general principles of how people gauge their memories. First, people do not assess their knowledge directly by inspecting the contents of memory. Rather, they use cues such as familiarity and partial access. Second, most of the time these cues provide a reasonable assessment of knowledge, but they are fallible.

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

Part 3: How parents and teachers can help kids better assess what they know

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 11, 2010; 12:50 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, how students learn  
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Next: How students trick themselves about what they know--Part 2

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