Sociology exams have a way of blindsiding students.

“I was just certain I had aced the test until I saw online that I failed it.” I have heard statements like this after every exam that I have ever given. Maybe my approach to teaching and assessing student learning is to blame, but I’m guessing that many of you reading this have experienced the same thing. So what gives?

The problem seems to lie in our student’s ability to assess their knowledge. Students’ have unwarranted confidence in their mastery of course content. They feel they know things that they in fact don’t[1]. Research out of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab suggest the problem may lie in how our students are studying. I’ll let Robert Bjork explain.

I hear Bjork saying, that when students try to judge their understanding of course material by looking at their notes and course texts, those judgments “will be very flawed.” This works in a way similar to the hindsight bias, once you know the answer it’s easy to presume you would have been able to do so without the help of your notes. So the best thing for students to do is to try and externalize their ideas so that they can assess them. Students who study with their peers, quizzing one another, will have a better understanding of what they know and what they don’t.

How To Help Students Know What They Really Know

The first question we should ask a struggling student is, “If I had watched you while you were studying for the test, what would I have seen you doing?” When students say that they, “reviewed their notes, reread chapters, etc.,” we have to encourage them to externalize their studying process.

Students need to say out loud, write down, or otherwise assess their learning outside of their head. If students like flashcards, great. But they need to say the definitions out loud before they flip the card over. If students like reviewing their notes, then encourage them to use another sheet of paper to cover up their notes. Then have them slowly pull the sheet down to reveal only the concept and not the definition/bullet points below. Then they can try to say aloud what they know about the concept.

Bjork’s study also suggests that clicker questions in the classroom can help students learn and not just assess their mastery of the concepts. After reading Bjork’s work I am strongly thinking about making practice quizzes available for my students to assess their learning before exams.

As the old saying goes, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” With just a few simple adjustments we can help our students know better what they know they know.

  1. I am simplifying things a bit here. Psychologists argue that learning and performance are not always one in the same. I’ll go into this more in a future post.  ↩