To Help Students Prepare for Assessments, Teach Them This Decision Skill

January 27th, 2020

A key part of becoming a better decision maker is building the skills to manage uncertainty, which students have the chance to work on whenever they have an upcoming assessment. When they wonder what content will appear on the test, whether their project is creative enough, or how long it will take them to write that paper, uncertainty makes them vulnerable to cognitive biases (mistakes in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other thinking processes) that can interfere with their preparations and result in lower grades. However, your students can recognize and resist cognitive biases when you teach them a strategy from habit psychology: constructing if-then planning statements. Let’s take a closer look at how this skill can help students think more rationally about how they approach the tasks that will greatly impact their overall grades.

The Overconfidence Effect

Students demonstrate the overconfidence effect when they make snap judgments like these:

  • “We only spent ten minutes on that concept, so I’m not going to bother studying it.”
  • “Oh, Mr. M. likes long as we act like we know what we’re talking about, he won’t care that the PowerPoint isn’t done.”
  • “It’ll be easy to write the paper the night before it’s due.”
  • In general, signs that we’ve succumbed to the overconfidence effect include making simplistic guesses about what might happen in the future and engaging in wishful thinking, which is the belief that our optimistic thoughts have the inherent power to turn a situation in our favor. However, we can avoid this cognitive bias when we consider the details that could influence the situation, imagine the range of possible outcomes, and identify ways to take more control.

Students can avoid being overconfident about how they’ll perform on assessments when they use if-then planning statements to keep their snap judgments in check. If-then planning statements are a way to anticipate and avoid obstacles that may get in the way of achieving a goal. This example applies if-then planning to establishing an exercise habit: “If I feel too tired to exercise on the days I scheduled it, then I will still put on my workout clothes, take a walk, and see if I feel like doing more.”

The “if” part of the statement acknowledges the issue that could get in the way of the goal we want to achieve. The “then” part of the statement sets up an opportunity for us to keep our success on track. Whenever students face a major assignment or test in your class, you can work as a group to construct if-then planning statements that will set them up for success. Here are some examples of if-then planning statements that could help students recalibrate those snap judgments:

Black-and-White Thinking

Black-and-white thinking, another cognitive bias that can surface before major assessments, involves judging a situation in an extreme way (like believing something is either terrible or great, ugly or beautiful, or easy or difficult) instead of seeing the gray area.

It can result when we have an emotional reaction to a situation and have difficulty finding nuanced vocabulary to describe it.

When we label the situation with the first word that comes to mind, it can feel like we’ve resolved our uncertainty or anxiety about it, but if that label represents the exception instead of the norm, it can reinforce inaccurate thinking.

Here are some examples of how students might demonstrate black-and-white thinking about assessments, along with if-then planning statements that will help them get their preparations back on track.

Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Students should also watch out for the sunk-cost fallacy while they’re in the process of completing assessments. The sunk-cost fallacy involves continuing an endeavor only because we invested time, money, and/or effort in it. It can take hold when we feel like it’s wrong to quit an activity, hope things will eventually improve, or are afraid of starting something new.

These examples show how the sunk-cost fallacy can interfere with how students approach assessments and how if-then planning could help them steer clear of it:

Whenever you’re introducing an assessment to your students, make it a habit to discuss how these common cognitive biases could prevent them from getting fully prepared. Our worksheet can help students construct if-then planning statements that will help them identify what they need to do to perform well on an upcoming test, project, or paper. Encourage them to share their ideas with the whole class!

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