Course Wrappers

Last week I wrote about cognitive biases and mental shortcuts from the student perspective. Let’s follow up by looking at the ways teachers’ rearview is similarly distorted.

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.” We experience this attitude when research/scholarship are the primary (only?) concern of the academic search committee. Once you’re an expert, as evidenced by earning a Ph.D. from a prestigious institution, you must surely also be qualified to teach. Administrators/P&T committees support this bias when they underestimate/ignore the effort, time and risks involved in developing teaching skills.

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.” When we teach as we were taught, we’re exhibiting optimism bias. It’s the view that other teachers need to attend teaching and learning workshops, not me. Overly optimistic teachers don’t need to read about learning, technology, pedagogy, or metacognition. They’re good teachers; their students learn well; just ask them.

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.” Similar to our students, teachers overestimate the effectiveness of a particular lesson or strategy, without obtaining evidence to prove it. We glow after an “awesome” class we facilitated and bask in the bang up job we did teaching. The focus is on the teacher, not the students.

If we discover that our “excellent” lesson lead to confusion instead of clarity and learning, that’s when attribution bias sets in. “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 our “excellent lesson” was ineffective, the fault lies elsewhere, not with the lesson or the instructor. Teachers rewrite history when we rationalize with statements like, “If we admitted better students, we could achieve better learning outcomes.” Other common rationalizations relate to classroom configuration, technology availability or distractions, and the limited rewards and recognition given to teaching excellence.

 Confirmation Bias. This occurs when we give “too much weight to information that supports existing beliefs and discount that which does not.” Teachers who discount course evaluations entirely are a good example. Flawed as most evaluation systems are, they can still yield valuable insights about instruction. Confirmation bias means a focus on the comments and numbers that support our view and a discount of the ones that don’t.

My intention isn’t to bash students (last week) or teachers (here). All of us are susceptible to these biases. Teachers need to consider how we can raise awareness of them for our students, and we need to be aware of own tendencies toward mental shortcuts and foggy hindsight as we approach the end of another term. One way to do that is through an adaptation of the “exam wrapper.” If you’re unfamiliar with exam wrappers, they are a sheet you wrap around graded tests you’re returning to students. The wrapper asks them to reflect on their exam preparation and effectiveness. I wrote about a recent experience with them here.  A “course wrapper” asks teachers to reflect on the course, teaching, preparation and outcomes. Here are some sample prompts:

  • What three words summarize my perception/memory of this course, with these students, this term?
  • What did I do to prepare for this course?
  • What do I want to remember for the future?
  • What would I do differently the next time I teach this course?
  • What content presented the greatest learning challenges for students? Why?
  • How do I know students achieved the intended learning outcomes?
  • What content was most challenging to teach? Why?
  • Which instructional strategies were most and least effective? Why?
  • Are the current course assessments the most effective in promoting the learning goals of this course?
  • What will I do differently to prepare for the next time I teach this course?
  • What will I read or learn about next to improve my teaching skill?

What questions would you add or have you used to reflect on teaching?

Time constraints limit the number of questions that can be addressed, particularly before the end of the term. If you don’t have time to write, consider recording an audio “note to yourself.” Select a question or two and record your thoughts. Most mobile phones, tablets and laptops can do this using embedded technology or a free app. A “stream of consciousness,” because it is unscripted and unedited is less likely to include memory biases and mental shortcuts. Audio has another benefit beside speed of recording.  As you listen to changes in your tone, cadence and inflection, you’ll gain insights about current feelings and frustrations that might not be captured in writing.


Whether you write or record, take a few minutes to critically review and reflect on this term before it ends. Pair the reflection with data on learning to document your thoughts, feelings and results while the memories are fresh and hindsight biases have yet to take a strong hold.

Photo credit: Jason Hawkins,

Quotes are from Why We Think We’re Better Investors Than We Are,


About Lolita Paff

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

Posted on April 20, 2016, in Learning, Professional Development, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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