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7 cognitive biases holding your students back

7 cognitive biases holding your students back

6 min read
  • The science of learning

Most people have probably heard about cognitive biases, or ‘thinking’ biases. For example, people with an Optimism Bias, tend to be overly optimistic and overestimate the likelihood of good things happening, whereas those with an Egocentric Bias recall the past in a way that reflects better on them than what actually happened. They don’t sound too harmful, right? 

However, these thinking biases could be having more of an effect on us than we might realise, especially because many of us may be suffering from the bias blind spot. This is, ironically, when we believe that other people are more likely to have biases than ourselves.

We found 7 cognitive biases that affect many students’ classroom learning, independent study, and feelings. Keep reading to find out more about them and some top tips for teachers and parents to help students overcome them.

7 cognitive biases holding your students back

Classroom learning

1. The Spotlight Effect

This is the tendency to think that other people notice your behaviour and appearance more than they actually do. One study on this had students wear an embarrassing t-shirt among other students at college. The result? The t-shirt wearers overestimated how many other students had noticed.

How does this apply to students?

Students often care a lot (perhaps too much!) about what other people think of them. The Spotlight Effect might explain those awkward classroom moments when the teacher asks a question and no one puts their hand up to answer. A student may want to but be too worried about what their classmates might think of their answer, or even just the fact they raised their hand.

In reality, classmates are probably just relieved that someone else has answered, so they won’t have to – showcasing the Spotlight Effect themselves. Engaging in class through questions and answers benefits learning, so this effect can be harmful. It could also contribute to students’ insecurity and self-consciousness. 

How to overcome it

Encourage students to focus less on what others think, and more on what they need to do to perform well and achieve their goals. Also, remind them that other students probably aren’t focused on them as much as they might think… they are more likely worrying about themselves.

 2. Not Invented Here 

This effect involves a reluctance to use knowledge, products, research or standards developed by another group; a type of In-group Bias.

How this could apply to students

Although it is more often seen in business, this bias can have an effect on classes using group work. For example, if each group researches and learns about a different part of a topic, when it comes to listening to other groups present their findings to the class, students may be averse to learning or using knowledge from other groups. This would cause them to miss out on valuable material. 

How to overcome it

Get students to really engage with other groups’ presentations. You could encourage them to take notes and even have them answer questions at the end. You could also allocate groups rather than letting students choose to be only with their friends, which could strengthen a possible In-group Bias. 3. The Misinformation Effect

This is when memory becomes less accurate because of information provided after learning. A good example of this comes from eye witness testimony research. In one study, participants watched videos of the same crime, but from different perspectives which showed different details. Participants then falsely recalled details that they had not actually seen in their video, but had picked up in conversation with participants who watched a different video.

How this could apply to students

The Misinformation Effect shows how our memory can be distorted by later information. This could cause students to misremember material if they discuss it with classmates who could unintentionally provide incorrect or inaccurate information.

How to overcome it

Although encouraging peers to discuss what they’ve learnt and to evaluate each others work can be a useful tool, use it with a degree of caution. After peer discussion or evaluation, make sure you set the facts straight.

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Independent study

4. Exaggerated Expectation Bias

As the name suggests, it is the tendency to expect more extreme outcomes than what ends up happening.

How this could apply to students

Unfortunately, this could result in students expecting their revision to have a bigger impact on their exam performance than it actually will. When this happens, students may put too little effort in their revision and show up to exams underprepared.

On the other hand, this bias could cause students to worry about upcoming exams and over-exaggerate just how horrible they will be, picturing the worst case scenario. This may cause unnecessary stress and anxiety surrounding exams and preparation for them. 

How to overcome it

Without micro-managing, provide as much guidance for revision as possible. How much do students need to know for each topic? How much time should they dedicate to it? Which revision strategies will make the best use of their time? These guidelines will help those students who might otherwise think they’ve mastered a topic in 5 minutes of revision by simply rereading… This tip will also help to overcome the Planning Fallacy, a related effect which explains why we often think tasks will take less time than they actually require. 

But also, reassure students, and help them to find some perspective: although exams are important and students should prepare for them well, they are not the be all and end all. Both teachers and parents can help with this, to reduce some of the worry and fear. 

5. Law of the Instrument Effect

People who suffer from this bias tend to favour a tool or strategy they are familiar with over other approaches that could work better.

How this could apply to students

The Law of the Instrument could explain the mystery of why some students, time and time again, resort to ineffective revision methods, such as re-reading and highlighting, when there are other, more effective techniques they could be using.

How to overcome this

It is important for students to separate what they prefer from what is best for them. Ways to help with this include encouraging them to use different revision techniques (such as retrieval practice) or creating a revision timetable with them to encourage the use of spacing. Parents could ask their child to teach them what they’ve been revising – a great way to make the best of the Protégé Effect

6. The Google Effect

Google is changing our brainsThe Google Effect happens when we quickly forget information that can be easily found online. Research suggests that human memory is reorganising, adapting to the notion that we can get facts at our fingertips with computer technology, rather than relying purely on memory. 

How this could apply to students

It’s not so bad for adults but, unfortunately, this is not useful in exams. Students who over-rely on googling answers for homework and revision (hello again, Law of the Instrument) may find themselves at a loss when they need to recall this information. 

How to overcome it

Remind students that there are other ways of gathering information. Encourage them to start by searching in a book or asking someone for information before resorting to Google. In general, ask yourself how much you should use tech in the classroom.

Read more about the Google Effect…

How students feel

7. Dread Aversion

You might have heard the saying “losses loom larger than gains”. Similarly, dreads yield double the emotional impact of savouring. In other words, we are more averse to things we dread than we are attracted to things we like. 

How this could apply to students

For some students, exams are especially daunting. Dread Aversion may cause them to avoid thinking about or planning for exams. Not only could this affect revision and eventually results, it will also contribute to the stress and anxiety surrounding them. 

How to overcome it

Reassurance and encouragement are definitely the solution here. Let students know that you are confident they can do it, and provide them with strategies to overcome their exam anxiety. On an additional note, this effect may be more likely to affect girls, so try to keep an eye out for girls who are showing signs of it.

Final thoughts

Cognitive biases are common, and most of the time we don’t even realise they’re happening. Thankfully, there are many ways to help students overcome them and reach their full academic potential while protecting their well-being.

But this also starts with you – students aren’t the only ones to fall prey to their biases. Are you suffering from one of these 5 common thinking biases in education?