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Should we actually be encouraging students to opt out of answering questions

Should we actually be encouraging students to opt out of answering questions?

6 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times

A recent research paper recently caught my eye. It is titled Opting Out as an Untapped Resource in Instructional Design: Review and Implications. This stood out to me for three reasons. Firstly, because I have written a lot about the importance of getting students to think hard (see here and here). Secondly, because I worry that students may use “I don’t know” sometimes (though certainly not all times) as a proxy for “I don’t want to have to think about it”. And finally, because last year I filmed an interview with Headteacher, Michael Chiles about how to respond when students reply with “I don’t know”. So does this new research paper change things?

The limitations of the research

The research paper listed a number of potential advantages and disadvantages to encouraging students to opt out. For example, these include: “This strategy allows the student to redirect their efforts towards either enhancing their overall skills or focusing on problems where they anticipate greater success”. My natural reaction was this sounded quite overly optimistic.  

Unfortunately, a number of examples and studies cited in this paper came from outside of education. To the researchers’ credit, they acknowledge this early on by writing: “our review commences by describing well establishes theories not originally addressing the concept of opting out in educational contexts”. It is certainly positive to look beyond education at times to learn from different settings, but when the domain is so different, it can be a case that there is not much transfer from one to the other.

One of the examples they give is: “In medicine and other fields where errors have significant implications, ignorance acknowledgement is a daily necessity as well as a crucial step towards learning and personal development … thus research on opting out underscores the importance of preparing students for the challenges that they will face as future professionals, equipping them with the skills to embrace and navigate uncertainty and change.”

Another study mentionned highlights how allowing people to opt out improves the quality of eye witness reports. Does this directly relate to students opting out of answering questions on Cold-Calling, Think, Pair, Share or mini-whiteboards? I personally don’t think so.

The potential benefits of letting students opt out

One of the main reasons the researchers give as to the benefit of opting out is that “learners, especially those adept at self-regulated learning, might strategically choose to engage with challenges that are more aligned with their current learning objectives and abilities”, and “to encourage learners to focus their cognitive resources on tasks that align with their personal goals, strengths, interest and region of proximal learning”. As the father of a six-year-old, I worry that if you gave my son and his friends a choice of learning that relates to their personal goals, strengths and interests, then there would be a lot of focus on dinosaurs and Minecraft and not too much focus on phonics and Maths.

Another potential benefit cited highlights a study that found that “initial signs from problem-solving contexts indicate that allowing opting out cuts down wasted effort on attempts doomed to failure”. Given that I have never seen a teacher set a task that they think their students were doomed to fail, I’m not sure this corresponds well to the day-to-day setting of the classroom.

One other potential benefit they list is that “it is plausible that opting out can serve as a self-regulation strategy for managing cognitive load. By opting out, individuals may potentially conserve cognitive resources for tasks they perceive as more important or doable”. I think the words “plausible” and “individuals may” are doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. That being said, I would be curious to see what research emerges from cognitive load researchers if any studies are done over the coming years, and remain open to being convinced on this line of thinking.

On reflection, one of my main worries about encouraging students to opt out is it creates a taboo about getting things wrong. As if errors are to be avoided at all costs. Yes, research points us towards the importance of high success rates (there is some great stuff on the impact success has on motivation, as well as on learning), but there is also emerging evidence of the value of getting things wrong.

For example, the Hypercorrection Effect describes how, if students get something confidently wrong, when presented with the correct answer, they are then more likely to remember it in the future. One of the reasons for this is that our brains are essentially prediction machines. And when we get a prediction badly wrong, it acts as a signal that we may need to remember this again in the future.

Likewise, other emerging research on pre-questions (sometimes called pre-tests) has found that when students guess an answer before being taught the material, even if they get it wrong, it can increase their curiosity and attention in the lesson in the rest of the lesson.

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The disadvantages of letting students opt out

The researchers do list a number of potential disadvantages to opting out, which I think carries more weight than the potential benefits they describe. For example, they note that “this approach can be detrimental to learning, in line with desirable difficulties, as it hinders engagement in educational opportunities and reinforces a negative cycle of knowledge gaps and continued avoidance”.

For anyone unfamiliar with Desirable Difficulties, this is the theory that some strategies that are beneficial for long-term learning may require more effort or thought. This includes areas such as Retrieval Practice (see the “Retrieval Effort Hypothesis”) or Interleaving (see Discrimination Theory research). They may not be preferable or may lead to less short-term performance but lead to better long-term learning. Essentially, if we let students opt out whenever they want to, then the very strategies that can help improve their learning will be the ones they may be more likely to opt out of doing.

Another disadvantage of opting out that the researchers list is due to the fact that “avoidance can be seen as a form of self-protective behaviour, aimed at preventing fear of failure and embarrassment rather than exposing vulnerabilities or gaps in knowledge”. This is something I would certainly agree with.

Final thoughts

On reflection, I am definitely not suggesting to never allow to students to opt out. I thought one of the researchers’ suggestions, that “opting-out skill development can be gradual, ideally not at the outset of a new topic, but rather at a later stage … for example a staged programme could be implemented where students initially focus on acquiring the target skill with a high level of determination to succeed. Only after reaching a desired level of mastery should opting out be introduced” wasn’t a bad one.

The key, I guess, is to be able to distinguish between when is opting out a proxy for “I don’t want to think” and when is it caused by a genuine lack of knowledge on the topic. But with so many tangible benefits for encouraging students to think hard, be it around Retrieval Practice research, thinking and participation ratio, Interleaving and Cold-Calling, I think I still definitely prefer strategies that “invite students into the conversation” and “make them think hard” instead of overly focusing on them opting out.

About the author

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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