Do Our Students Know What They Don’t Know?

“But I understood it in class!” We hear this all the time from students who are surprised by a lower than expected exam score. Chances are you hear it, too. Variations include: “I studied so hard for the test, and I still got a C! How is that possible?”

Obviously, there can be many explanations for this exclamation, but this week, as midterms approach, we’ll suggest that it can stem from 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.”

We faculty have spent years, or decades, in our disciplines, and we love talking about the material that thrills us. In other words, many of us 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, zoom session, or video lecture 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.”

This doesn’t mean we should be less clear, of course; instead, we must think about whether our teaching methods lead students to shallow or deep knowledge of the subject.

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

Svinicki suggests that this “false assessment of the difficulty of material” is worthy of our attention because it affects how and how much our students study. “Because they are under the illusion that the material is easy, they feel they won’t need much study time.”

What can we do to 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. Students can also solve challenging problems together in class. Low-stakes, formative quizzes or assignments are also 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 also 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.