This post is an adaptation of Gary Belski’s March 25 New York Times’ Your Money article, Why We Think We’re Better Investors Than We Are. Belski writes, “the majority of cognitive biases and shortcuts that influence everyday judgment and choice have analogues in investment behavior.” I see implications for students and learning too.

Overconfidence. “This is not run-of-the-mill arrogance, but rather the tendency we all have to overrate our abilities, knowledge and skill, at whatever level we might place them.” In learning, this means over-estimating “ability” and underestimating the effort involved in fully developing knowledge and skills. A typical example is when a student thinks they understand material, but do not actually test that assumption. The result is an unpleasant surprise on an exam.

Optimism Bias. “A bias toward optimism helps to explain why many, if not most, smokers are confident that they will not develop cancer; why many drivers are certain that their texting will not lead to an accident; and why many investors believe they can outperform the market.” In learning, this manifests in students’ continual technology-based multitasking behaviors, despite all the evidence showing its impact on speed, accuracy and cognitive performance. It also presents as “I’m going to ace this test” or “I’m going to get a B in this course” despite contrary evidence on quizzes and other formative work.

Hindsight Bias. “One of the biggest esteem builders is hindsight bias, or the tendency to rewrite our own history to make ourselves look good…. Too often we look back not in anger but in awe, at least of our own capacities.” Students rewrite history when they overestimate how much they studied or worked on a project. Subsequently, students rationalize with statements like, “I could have done better but I didn’t study for that test;” “I didn’t really care about that course;” and “No one did well in that class, at least I passed.”

Attribution Bias. “When events unfold that confirm our thoughts or deeds, we attribute that happy outcome to our skills, knowledge or intuition. But when life proves our actions or beliefs to have been wrong, we blame outside causes over which we had no control — and thus maintain our faith in ourselves.” Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer puts it this way: “Heads I win, tails it’s chance.” If a student doesn’t perform as well as expected, attribution bias leads to blaming pretty much anyone other than the student. Examples include blaming the teacher, job, relationship conflicts, technology troubles, roommate distractions, etc.  This isn’t to say that these distractions and issues don’t interfere with learning.  Rather, the point is that students look toward the external explanations as the first and foremost reason for not doing well academically.

Confirmation Bias. This occurs when we give “too much weight to information that supports existing beliefs and discount that which does not.” This refers to students who focus on the good scores they receive on minor assignments while ignoring poor performance on major assessments. They send a puzzled email questioning their score on the final exam or the course grade. They are surprised by the result, despite accumulating, contrary evidence throughout the course.

My intention isn’t to bash students. All of us are susceptible to these biases. Teachers need to consider how we can raise awareness of them. Unfortunately, there are few strategies to help students minimize the negative consequences of these patterns of thinking.

In the investment realm, one tactic is to document investment ideas, keeping track of both hits and misses. “Note the emphasis on ideas and not just actions. More often than not, the aforementioned biases lead us to recall investments that soared that we thought to make but did not — and to forget those that plummeted.” The teaching and learning analogue is to assign pre-test reflections and post-test wrappers. Collectively this kind of evidence sheds light on students’ behaviors, plans, assumptions and follow through, making it more difficult to revise history through a biased lens.

Another defense is to self-distance, or consider the opposite of any decision beforehand through specific, guided inquiry of thoughts and behaviors. This is sometimes referred to as a pre-mortem approach. In the learning context, teachers can ask students to assume their study plan results in poor performance. “What would you be saying to yourself right now about how or why you should have foreseen it?” Journaling is one means of drawing attention to these issues over the semester. Or, assign a question like this before an exam or major assessment. Collect and save the responses. Ask for a follow up reflection. Return the pre- and post-mortem; let students discern the implications for themselves.

They say hindsight is 20-20.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Awareness of these biases is a first step toward helping students see what’s around, approaching, and behind more clearly to make better learning decisions. Next week, we’ll explore these biases from the teacher perspective.

Photo credit: Julie McCullough 


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on April 13, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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