Why Students Think They Understand When They Don’t

Students often think they understand a body of material and, believing that they know it, stop trying to learn more. But come test time, it turns out they really don’t know the material very well at all. Can cognitive science tell us anything about why students are commonly mistaken about what they know and don’t know? Are there any strategies teachers can use to help students better estimate what they know?

How do we know that we know something? If I said to you, “Could you name the first President of the United States?” you would say, “Yes, I could tell you that.” On the other hand, if I said, “Could you tell me the names of the two series of novels written by Anthony Trollope?” you might say, “No.” What processes go into your judgment of what you know? The answer may at first seem obvious: You look in your memory and see what’s there. For the first question, you determine that your memory contains the fact that George Washington was the first U.S. President, so you answer “yes.” For the second question, if you determine that your memory contains little information about Trollope (and doesn’t include the novel series named Barchester and Palliser), you would answer “no.”

But, if the mechanism were really so simple, we would seldom — if ever — make mistakes about what we know. In fact, we do make such mistakes. For example, we have all confidently thought that we knew how to get to a destination, but then when put to the test by actually having to drive there, we realize that we don’t know. The route may seem familiar, but that’s a far cry from recalling every turn and street name.

The feeling of knowing has an important role in school settings because it is a key determinant of student studying (e.g., Mazzoni & Cornoldi, 1993). Suppose a third-grader has been studying the Vikings with the goal of understanding where they were from and what they did. At what point does the third-grader say to him or herself: “I understand this. If the teacher asks me, ‘Who were the Vikings?’ I could give a good answer.”

Every teacher has seen that students’ assessments of their own knowledge are not always accurate. Indeed, this inaccuracy can be a source of significant frustration for students on examinations. The student is certain that he or she has mastered some material, yet performs poorly on a test, and may, therefore, conclude that the test was not fair. The student has assessed his or her knowledge and concluded that it is solid, yet the examination indicates that it is not. What happened? What cues do students use to decide that they know something?

Cognitive science research has shown that two cues are especially important in guiding our judgments of what we know: (1) our “familiarity” with a given body of information and (2) our “partial access” to that information. In this column, I’ll discuss how these two cues can lead students to believe that they know material when they don’t. And, in the box on page 41, I suggest ways that teachers can help students develop more realistic self-assessments of their knowledge.

“Familiarity” fools our mind into thinking we know more than we do

The idea of familiarity is, well, familiar to all of us. We have all had the experience of seeing someone and sensing that her face is familiar but being unable to remember who that person is or how we know her.

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him. (See Yonelinas, 2002, for an extended review of the differences between recollection and familiarity.)

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t. For example, it has been shown that if some key words of a question are familiar, you are more likely to think that you know the answer to the question. In one experiment demonstrating this effect (Reder, 1987), subjects were exposed to a variety of word pairs (e.g. “golf” and “par”) and then asked to complete a short task that required them to think at least for a moment about the words. Next, subjects saw a set of trivia questions, some of which used words that the subjects had just been exposed to in the previous task. Subjects were asked to make a rapid judgment as to whether or not they knew the answer to the question — and then they were to provide the answer.

If the trivia question contained key words from the previous task (e.g., “What term in golf refers to a score of one under par on a particular hole?”), those words should have seemed familiar, and may have led to a feeling of knowing. Indeed, Reder found that subjects were likely to say that they knew the answer to a question containing familiar words, irrespective of whether they could actually answer the question. For questions in which words had not been rendered familiar, subjects were fairly accurate in rapidly assessing their knowledge.

“Partial access”: Our mind is fooled when we know part of the material or related material

A second basis for the feeling of knowing is “partial access,” which refers to the knowledge that an individual has of either a component of the target material or information closely related to the target material. Suppose I ask you a question and the answer doesn’t immediately come to mind, but some related information does. For example, when I ask for the names of the two series of Trollope novels, you readily recall Barchester and you know I mentioned the other series earlier; you even remember that it started with the letter P, and you believe it had two or three syllables. Your quick retrieval of this partial information will lead to a feeling of knowing the relevant information — even if Palliser is not actually in your memory.

The effect of partial access was demonstrated in an experiment (Koriat & Levy-Sadot, 2001) in which subjects were asked difficult trivia questions. If subjects couldn’t answer a particular question, they were asked to judge whether they would recognize the answer if they saw it (i.e., to make a feeling-of-knowing judgment). The interesting twist: Some of the questions used categories for which lots of examples came to mind for their subjects (e.g., composers) and matching questions used categories for which few examples came to mind (e.g., choreographers) — that is, these subjects could easily think of at least a few famous composers, but couldn’t think of more than one or two choreographers, if any.

The results showed that whether or not they could actually recognize the right answer, people gave higher feeling-of-knowing judgments to questions using many-example categories (e.g., “Who composed the music for the ballet Swan Lake?”) than to questions using few-example categories (e.g., “Who choreographed the ballet Swan Lake?”). The experimenters argued that when people see the composer question, the answer doesn’t come to mind, but the names of several composers do. This related information leads to a feeling of knowing. Informally, we could say that subjects conclude (consciously or unconsciously), “I can’t retrieve the Swan Lake composer right now, but I certainly seem to know a lot about composers. With a little more time, the answer to the question could probably be found.” On the other hand, the choreographer question brings little information to mind and, therefore, no feeling of knowing.*

These studies, and dozens of others like them, confirm two general principles of how people gauge their memories. First, people do not assess their knowledge directly by inspecting the contents of memory. Rather, they use cues such as familiarity and partial access. Second, most of the time these cues provide a reasonable assessment of knowledge, but they are fallible.

How students end up with “familiarity” and “partial access” to material

If a student believes that he knows material, he will likely divert attention elsewhere; he will stop listening, reading, working, or participating. Mentally “checking out” is never a good choice for students, but all the more so when they disengage because they think they know material that, in fact, they do not know. The feeling of knowing becomes a problem if you have the feeling without the knowing. There are some very obvious ways in which students can reach this unfortunate situation in a school setting. Here are several common ones:

Cognitive science research confirms teachers’ impressions that students do not always know what they think they know. It also shows where this false sense of knowledge comes from and helps us imagine the kinds of teaching and learning activities that could minimize this problem. In particular, teachers can help students test their own knowledge in ways that provide more accurate assessments of what they really know — which enables students to better judge when they have mastered material and when (and where) more work is required.


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