In search of student cognitive biases

In search of student cognitive biases

This vacation, I’ve been reading a lot about the work of, so I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive biases. And as things wind up, I’m not sure that I have a lot of access to work that looks at the effects of cognitive biases on student learning. But I am sure that I have a lot of access to watching cognitive biases in students.

One of the things that I really like about how I run AP Biology is my testing practice. Rather than giving students an exam at the end of each unit, I give students an exam at the end of each month. Exams are 50% material from that month, and 50% cumulative material from the rest of the course. Like anything else in my practice, this idea isn’t my own. This is a preferable way to test students because it explicitly bakes in spaced repetition strategies to improve recall and it disabuses students of the subliminal message that they should stop thinking about a section of the course after a “unit exam.” It’s also an easy change for a teacher to make to the standard mode of testing kids in a high school class.

As much as I like this testing practice, there are always a collection of students who do not enjoy it nearly as much. Some students prefer “typical” unit exams. Which means that some students try to find fault with the practice. This past semester, the fault-finding showed up after the third exam. Students’ complained that the exam did not adhere to the 50/50 rule. It seemed to them that more of the exam was on “old” material than on material from the most recent month of the course (a month that included the endomembrane system, and bio-energetic theory). Being a responsive educator, I went through the exam and binned the questions, and found out that...slightly more of the exam was on the most recent month than it was on prior content. The exam was, in actuality, the opposite of their complaint.

So why did it seem to many students to be the opposite?

It seems to be a cognitive bias in the students. I think students who felt this way were revealing wherein the most memorable material that they studied and binned as being “test worthy” (i.e., the “hardest” stuff from the month) was not given the representation on the exam that they came to believe that it would. Rather than the situation being that the test did not adhere to the broadcast proportions, instead the material that they chose to study was not represented on the exam at the level they felt that it should. And while we’re here, let’s be clear that this is not indicative of anything wrong with their studentship (or, for that matter, with my exam). It’s totally understandable that a student can walk themselves into this type of cognitive pattern. That's what makes it a cognitive bias.

And I’m sure it’s not the only cognitive bias that functions in my students.

Which brings me to something I don’t have: Studies of cognitive biases in student brains. Most of the things that I find when I search for work about cognitive biases in education are for teachers and decision-makers, framing the mistakes they might make when trying to determine the success/failure of a particular intervention/initiative. That’s all useful stuff, but it’s not what I’m looking for here. I want to know the typical cognitive biases that students make when learning, and how we might both help students avoid them where possible, or even exploit them where necessary. Any easy example-- the recent push to connect science learning to stories looks like a clear approach to manipulating to help students learn about important understandings. Are there other things that we might do? And if we know what they are, is it appropriate for teachers to exploit them?

I think the answers to both of these questions are “YES!” but I don't have access to the source material I need. So that's what I’m looking for now. If you have anything to send my way, I’m all eyes!

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