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The psychology of 'Aha!' moments

The psychology of ‘Aha!’ moments: 5 ways to develop insight

6 min read
  • Metacognition
  • The science of learning

Problem-solving isn’t easy, especially when it takes longer than you would have hoped to figure something out. But when the answer suddenly clicks, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings. It’s this “Aha!” moment that psychologists refer to as “insight” – when a student suddenly understands a concept or idea that was previously unclear to them.

But how does insight work? And how helpful is it? Read on to learn more about…

  • What are “Aha!” moments?
  • Four stages of insight
  • Metacognition and insight
  • Pros and cons of “Aha!” moments
  • Strategies to promote insight

What are “Aha!” moments?

When working on a challenging problem, there might come a point when you finally find the solution. This can create some happiness and is often known as the “Aha!” moment.

Previous researchers found that these moments have four main features – they:

  • Create strong positive emotions
  • Are sudden and unpredictable
  • Are more pronounced after experiencing a period of feeling stuck
  • Are a subjective experience

Surprisingly, the idea of insight as a learning tool came from an experiment with a chimpanzee and bananas by psychologist, Wolfgang Köhler. He placed some bananas outside the chimpanzee’s cage, a short stick inside the cage and a long stick outside, beyond reach. At first, the chimpanzee poked at the bananas with the short stick and then gave up and went away to play. Then, it suddenly returned. Instead of repeating what he did before, the chimp pulled in the long stick with the shorter one and joined them together to finally reach the bananas. Here, we can see that it wasn’t trial and error that helped the chimpanzee, but an internal change in its cognition when it went and took a break.

The four stages of insight

From this research, scientists have split insightful learning into four stages. Understanding these steps can give you guidance on how to facilitate the process of insightful learning:

  1. Preparation – Gathering information about the problem by actively engaging with it and using analytic thinking.
  2. Incubation – Temporarily taking a break from the problem in which the mind subconsciously makes new links between information.
  3. Insight – The “Aha!” moment when everything suddenly clicks.
  4. Verification – Testing the solution gathered during insight to see if it is the right one.

Familiarising students with these four stages can help them organise their thinking and approach complex problems in a step-by-step way. However, the order of these steps isn’t set in stone; some students may spend more time in each stage and revisit some previous stages, while other students may gain insight much faster. So, it’s worth noting that these steps are a guide for encouraging problem-solving rather than a set of rules.

The link between insight and Metacognition

Metacognition is our ability to reflect and critically analyse how we think, and choose appropriate thought processes. Like with many other skills, we can often end up making metacognitive errors, meaning that how we predict we’ll perform may not match the reality.

But what does this have to do with “Aha!” moments?

Researchers found that these moments might be caused by metacognitive prediction errors – in other words, “Aha!” moments happen when we surprise ourselves with our performance and capabilities.

Develop your students’ self-regulation, emotional control and independent learning with a Metacognition CPD workshop.

How can you apply these findings in the classroom?

Overall, although having an “Aha!” moment might help students remember the information better, it might cause some issues such as having a bias of thinking that false information is true.

Therefore, the first step should be to develop Metacognition in the classroom. One of the easiest ways to do so is to break down strategies into three stages: before, during and after a task.

1. Before a task 

Before starting a task, students prepare well by unpacking it. They should also engage in self-questioning and set goals to help keep them on track and be more productive.

2. During a task 

During a task, students should assess how they are progressing to make sure they are on the right path. This can be done through asking questions, monitoring their progress and developing resilience.

3. After a task 

After a task, students should review and reflect on what went well and what they could do differently next time. This helps ensure they are learning as much as possible from the experience and therefore are developing and improving.

This cycle is often also called the Plan, Do, Review process. To help make it an integral part of how your school’s students learn, why not book our Metacognition: Plan, Do, Review CPD teacher workshop?

5 strategies to promote insight in your students

There are many other ways for you to help your students unlock insightful thinking, both inside and outside of the classroom. These include…

1. Encouraging healthy sleep habits

Most students aren’t getting enough sleep and may be missing out on learning as a result. One of the reasons is that sleep inspires insight and is credited for supporting some important scientific breakthroughs.

For students, research suggests that sleeping between a task can give students a greater awareness of underlying rules in complex concepts that aren’t obvious at first. You can find more about the link between sleep and learning (and how to improve it) on our guide page.

2. Using open-ended questions

Posing thought-provoking, open-ended questions requires students to think critically and explore different perspectives. This encourages them to have deeper reflections about a topic which increases the likelihood that your students will gain insight.

3. Incorporating collaboration

Another way your students can broaden their perspectives is by collaborating with their peers to complete tasks and solve problems. By sharing ideas, students can redirect their thoughts to consider perspectives that they didn’t think of before to gain new insights.

One way to support effective group work is by cultivating a psychologically safe environment so your students feel comfortable with sharing their ideas, even if they are outside the box.

4. Setting clear goals

When your students have a sense of purpose for their learning, they will be more willing to put effort into solving any problems that come along the way. You can support your students with these by prefacing potential obstacles that they may face. As a result, they avoid common thinking mistakes and become one step closer to acquiring insight.

5. Giving students downtime

As we saw from the research, students benefit from a break as this is when the mind restructures the information that they gather from a problem.

Downtime also helps students develop into independent learners because their minds have time to come to a solution. And if your students are clearly getting stuck, you can always offer clues and hints to draw your students closer to their “Aha!” moment.

The benefits and limitations of “Aha!” moments

So, these experiences feel great – but is that all there is to them, or can they actually be beneficial to learning?

In another study, researchers investigated this question by giving participants magic tricks to solve and asking them whether they experienced an “Aha!” moment during the process. When the participants were tested on the solutions two weeks later, they remembered:

  • 64% of the tricks with an “Aha!” moment
  • 52% of the tricks without an “Aha!” moment

Therefore, having these moments might slightly help students remember the information better in the long-term.

However, there are some dangers to be wary of. In another study, participants were given an incomplete sentence and had to unscramble the final word in order to complete the sentence. They then had to rate each statement as true or false, as well as rating whether they experienced an “Aha!” moment.

The researchers found that participants were much more likely to rate false statements as true if they experienced an “Aha!” moment. This can be particularly dangerous when learning as it could cause students to wrongly believe that they have the right answer.

Final thoughts

“Aha!” moments can be very satisfying, especially after working so long to try and solve a problem. Research suggests that these moments occur due to metacognitive prediction errors. So it turns out, letting students struggle a little bit and then helping them reflect on the process and the solution may just give them their eureka moment.

The process of reaching an “Aha!” moment is personal for each student, so the answers may not click for everyone at the same time. However, putting in place the strategies in this blog can help students balance persistence with downtime to gain new insights and accelerate their overall learning.

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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