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9 common thinking biases

9 common thinking biases in Education

11 min read
  • The science of learning

Did you know that our brains are a bit funky? On many occasions, our thought process is riddled with gremlins that stop us thinking rationally and logically. In fact, researchers have identified over one hundred cognitive biases that subtly influence our decisions and thoughts.

We think certain thinking biases tend to arise more frequently in the field of education. In this blog, we will delve into how nine of these may manifest in your classroom and provide you with strategies to help counter these biases…

  1. The Hawthorne Effect
  2. The Ikea Effect
  3. The Bandwagon Effect
  4. Confirmation Bias
  5. The Dunning-Kruger Effect
  6. Halo Effect
  7. Negativity Bias
  8. Planning Fallacy
  9. Outcome Bias

The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect refers to the phenomenon where individuals modify their behaviour or performance when they are aware of being observed. This is named after an experiment conducted at The Hawthorne Factory in America. The factory owners were eager to enhance productivity, so they decided to observe their staff. Interestingly, they discovered that productivity increased when workers were being watched, but returned to normal rates when they were no longer under observation. This led to the conclusion that the mere act of observing workers caused them to modify their behaviour and perform better (though it is worth noting that it is very hard to find the original data, leading to some doubting the original study).

In an educational setting, here are two ways your students may engage in this phenomenon…

  1. Increased effort – The knowledge that their actions are being monitored may motivate students to put in extra effort in order to impress their teachers or peers. They may strive to perform better, complete tasks faster, or participate more actively in class discussions. However this could involve trying to appear more diligent or engaged than they normally would be.
  2. Social desirability bias – Students may conform to what they believe is socially desirable behaviour when they are aware of being observed. This can involve adopting attitudes or behaviors that they perceive as more favourable or acceptable to others.

But understanding the Hawthorne Effect is also essential when you’re a teacher being observed. here is how you may engage in this phenomenon subconsciously…

  • Altering teaching methods – Teachers may change their instructional strategies or classroom management techniques when they know they are being observed. They might try new approaches or employ more innovative methods to showcase their effectiveness as educators.
  • Classroom organization – Teachers may make special efforts to maintain a well-structured and organized classroom when they are aware of being observed. They might ensure that materials are neatly arranged, bulletin boards are updated, and learning spaces are visually appealing.

So how can you navigate this? Here are two strategies you can use to help manage the Hawthorne Effect during classroom observations:

  • Embrace authenticity – Keep in mind that the goal of an observation isn’t to put on a show but to provide a genuine glimpse into your everyday teaching methods. Embrace your usual teaching style and resist the urge to do something extra or different.
  • Carry out mindful reflection – Reflect on your typical teaching practices and make a conscious effort to adhere to them during the observation. This self-awareness can help counteract any subconscious changes in behaviour due to being observed.

The Ikea Effect

The Ikea Effect is a psychological phenomenon where we place a higher value on items we have personally contributed to or created. This bias is rooted in the sense of accomplishment and ownership derived from personal effort and time investment.

Here is how students may exhibit the Ikea Effect:

  1. Project-based learning – Students who engage in project-based learning experiences where they actively create something, such as a presentation, artwork, or model, often develop a strong attachment to their work. They may feel a sense of pride and ownership over their creations, leading them to value their projects more.
  2. Personalization and customization – When given opportunities to personalise their learning experience, such as choosing topics for research or designing their own assignments, students tend to become more invested in the outcome. The act of tailoring their education to their interests and preferences can make the learning experience more “worth it”.

In education, this phenomenon may also occur when a teacher, having developed a new strategy or intervention, overestimates its effectiveness due to the invested effort, potentially leading to persistence with underperforming strategies.

Thankfully, there are ways you can keep this bias in check…

  • Reflect regularly – Make a habit of stepping back and objectively assessing your strategies and interventions. The key is not to let the effort you’ve put into developing them cloud your judgement of their effectiveness.
  • Ask for feedback – It may be a good idea to get trusted colleagues’ thought on your teaching approach. They can give a fresh perspective that can help you see things you might have missed.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes the tendency for individuals with low competence to be overconfident in their ability, while those with high competence doubt and underestimate themselves. In a subsequent study, researchers found that those who score in the lower bracket for their ability to tell funny jokes, consistently rated themselves in a much higher category.

Here is how this may relate to your students:

  • The Illusion of Knowledge – Students may possess limited knowledge or skills in a particular subject but mistakenly believe they have a more comprehensive understanding than they really do. This can hinder their willingness to seek guidance or recognise areas where improvement is necessary.

Fortunately, you can tackle this effect by cultivating a culture that encourages students to regularly engage in self-reflection, while embracing the idea that everyone has the capacity to improve with dedicated effort. Journaling is often a good way. This will allow your students to develop a more accurate perception of their abilities and make progress towards reaching their goals.

The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual’s overall perception of another person, object, or situation is influenced by a single positive trait or characteristic. In the context of education, the Halo Effect can impact how students are perceived and evaluated by teachers, which can have both positive and negative implications.

In the context of education, the Halo Effect can impact how students are perceived and evaluated by teachers, which can have positive and negative implications for example…

  • Differential treatment – Students who possess a particular trait may receive a different treatment from their peers. For example if a student achieves a grade A, teachers may assume that these students are high achieving and as a result, these students may receive more praise and attention. Similarly, if a student has a history of underperformance of bad behaviour, teachers may inadvertently allow this initial impression to overshadow their overall evaluation. As a result, the student may receive limited opportunities. and perpetuate a cycle of underachievement.
  • Impact on Evaluation and Grading – The Halo Effect can influence how teachers evaluate and grade students. If a teacher holds a positive perception of a student due to a specific talent or characteristic, they may unintentionally assign higher grades or evaluate their work more leniently. Conversely, if a teacher holds a negative perception of a student, they may unconsciously grade their work more critically. These biases in evaluation can impact students’ academic trajectories and shape their self-perception and motivation.

Some common ways you may use to overcome the Halo Effect include…

  • Reflecting on personal biases – Reflecting on your beliefs and assumptions can help you become more conscious of any preconceived notions you may hold about a student. This in return will allow you to challenge thoughts.
  • Practise blind grading – By removing identifying information such as students names from assignments, you can evaluate a students work without being influenced by who they may be. This practice promotes objectivity in grading and helps prevent favouritism or other bias.

The Bandwagon Effect

The Bandwagon Effect occurs when people change their beliefs or actions to match what the majority are doing. This comes from our human nature to want to fit in and be part of a group.

For teachers, this might mean trying out a new teaching method or tool just because other teachers are using it, rather than thinking about whether it’s the best fit for their own classroom.

However when used wisely, this desire to follow the group can be a force for good. For example, a study showed that when hotel guests were told that others were reusing their towels, they were more likely to do the same, which helped save on laundry. You can use this same trick to encourage desirable behaviour in the classroom.

But remember: don’t fall in the trap of jumping onto every education trend without seeing solid evidence that it works.

High-impact CPD made easy. Develop evidence-informed CPD at your school, using our exclusive online collection of courses and resources.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is the phenomenon that describes our tendency to pay more attention to things that agree with our existing beliefs and ignore things that don’t. This bias can play a significant role in classrooms, leading to potential misjudgements about the effectiveness of teaching strategies or even your students’ performance.

For instance, let’s say a teacher notices a student who is consistently quiet and reserved in class. They may assume that the student is disengaged or lacking in understanding, when in fact, the student may just feel uncomfortable speaking out loud. Similarly, one study found that when students were told that their supply teacher was ‘rather warm’ rated the supply teacher as nicer and funnier in comparison to the group of participants who were told ‘rather cold’.  In other words, what students saw and interpreted backed up their previous belief.

It is therefore important for you to be aware of this bias, here is how…

  • Recognise and acknowledge bias – The first step for teachers is to recognise and acknowledge their own confirmation biases. Awareness of this tendency is essential in order to consciously work towards overcoming it. Teachers should reflect on their beliefs, assumptions, and preconceived notions that may influence their judgments and interactions with students.
  • Foster discussions and talk to others – One of the easiest ways you can avoid the Confirmation Bias is becoming aware of other people’s views. This can help challenge your assumptions and help you avoid searching for answers in support of your view.

The Negativity Bias

The Negativity bias refers to the tendency for individuals to give more weight and attention to negative information or experiences compared to positive ones.

Let’s do a quick experiment: I think you are a kind person but I also think some of your suggestions are stupid. If I was to ask you which part of the sentence you would be likely to remember in a month’s time, chances are it would be the negative part. This is because we have learnt to play close attention to the negative things.

Although this may have an evolutionary advantage, where being aware of negative and harmful things can keep us safe, it is often unhelpful in education. Here is how…

  • Student perspectives – Students may be more likely to remember and dwell on negative feedback or criticism from teachers rather than acknowledging positive reinforcement or praise. This bias can impact their self-esteem, motivation and overall well-being.
  • Teachers may overlook strength – Teachers might not give enough attention or recognition to students’ strengths and positive attributes. By focusing predominantly on weaknesses, teachers miss opportunities to boost students’ confidence and nurture their talents.

Luckily, there are a couple ways you and your students can overcome the negativity bias…  

  • Provide constructive feedback – When addressing mistakes or areas for improvement, balance the feedback with positive reinforcement and specific guidance on how students can grow and succeed.
  • Nurture a Growth Mindset – Encourage students to view mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth, emphasising that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process.

The Planning Fallacy

The Planning Fallacy is a cognitive bias that refers to the tendency for individuals to underestimate the time, resources, and effort required to complete a task or project. It often leads to overly optimistic predictions and unrealistic expectations about the timeline for completion.

One classic study found that on average, students guessed that it would take them about 34 days to finish their final research project. The reality? The average time it took students to complete it was just over 55 days. The Planning Fallacy is one of the possible reasons why so many of us tend to procrastinate.

Here is how this bias may unfold in the classroom…

  1. Teachers expectations – Teachers may set unrealistic deadlines or assigning excessive workloads without considering the available time and resources. This can create undue pressure on students and hinder their ability to meet expectations.
  2. Overcommitment – Students may overcommit themselves by taking on too many extracurricular activities, courses, or responsibilities without considering the practicality of managing their time effectively. This can lead to a cycle of incomplete tasks, missed deadlines, and increased stress levels.

To mitigate the Planning Fallacy, both students and teachers can employ these strategies…

  • Break tasks into smaller steps – Breaking down larger assignments or projects into smaller, manageable tasks with specific deadlines can assist students in better planning and allocating their time and resources.
  • Encourage prioritisation – Teachers should encourage students to prioritise their tasks based on urgency, importance, and their own capabilities. This helps students allocate their time and resources effectively and avoid feelings of being overwhelmed.

Outcome Bias

The Outcome Bias is a cognitive bias that occurs when individuals judge the quality of a decision based solely on its outcome, rather than considering the process or factors that led to that outcome. This is common in sport: if people win then their decisions were good, but if they lose then the decision must have been bad.  

In the context of education, both students and teachers can fall victim to the Outcome Bias, which can have various implications on their learning and teaching experience. Some examples include:

  1. Students focusing on grades/test scores as a sole measure of success – By solely focusing on exam grades, students may neglect other important aspects of learning, such as deep understanding. This in return can influence students’ self-perception and motivation. If students receive a poor grade, they may deem themselves as failures without considering their effort or revision strategy.
  2. Teachers may sometimes doubt their potential without considering external factors –When a student faces challenges or performs poorly, it’s natural to question your own teaching ability.

Helpful strategies to overcome the outcome bias include…

  • Emphasising the importance of the learning process – Create a classroom environment that values growth, providing constant feedback and celebrating minor achievements can. Help students focus less on grades. This can help students track their progress and reflect on their learning.
  • Recognise diverse learning needs – Try adjusting the pace, content and instructions based on the needs of each student. This approach can help you identify reasons for varying levels of student struggle, which may have nothing to do with your teaching ability.

Final thoughts

Thinking biases are not confined to psychology textbooks; they permeate classrooms, influencing how we teach and how students learn.

Understanding these biases is crucial, and actively working to reduce their impact is vital. By doing so, you can enhance your teaching and create a more enriching learning experience for your students. Remember, the pursuit of bias-free thinking is not about attaining perfection, but rather engaging in continuous learning, reflection, and improvement.

Read more about challenging unhelpful thoughts.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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