Avoiding Exam Surprises

“But I understood it in class!?”

We’ve probably all heard this plaint: “I studied so hard for the test. And I still got a C! How is that possible?”

One explanation is a phenomenon known as the “fluency illusion” or “illusion of comprehension” – an illusion that we may unwittingly perpetuate. “Students are afflicted with this malady on a regular basis for some good reasons,” explains Marilla Svinicki (2004). “First of all, students sometimes confuse familiarity with knowing. They believe they know something if they can recognize it.”

One reason that illusions of fluency are so common is that we know our fields so well, and we love talking about the material that thrills us. In other words, we love to lecture. As Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) explain, “when students hear a lecture or read a text that is a paragon of clarity, the ease with which they follow the argument gives them the feeling that they already know it and don’t need to study it.” So, unfortunately, the more eloquently and fluently you explain your course material, the more your students might be leaving your class with an unfounded sense that they learned it–but “when put to the test, they find they cannot recall the critical ideas or apply them in a new context.”

We also cultivate an illusion of comprehension if we rely on lower-order multiple choice questions, which allow students to feel confident if they recognize vocabulary or concepts, without ever demanding that they explain or apply or generate ideas.

How can we help students gauge how much they’re actually learning? Asking them lots of sample application questions helps: a list of tough questions to answer is a great study tool. Non-graded, formative quizzes or assignments are very useful; students need the chance to see whether they’re getting it or not. Students who don’t quiz themselves are far more subject to fluency illusions, so we can help them to adjust their study habits, and develop stronger self-monitoring skills. Any opportunities to practice using the material, and get targeted feedback on their progress, will assist students to acquire the crucial skill of self-assessment. Of course, practice will also help them learn more, so they (and you) will be less likely to get a shock after the exam.

If you’re interested in working with CAT to develop more practice opportunities or metacognitive exercises for your students, we’re always happy to help. You might also be interested in our two-part Exam Design Institute (November 7 and 14, 2:00-4:00) or our Faculty Learning Community for Instructors of Large Classes. To RSVP or make an appointment, please email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you!