Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Learning and Motivation, part III: "The illusion of comprehension"

(This is the third post on Marilia Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Here are part I, on how learners come to question or abandon their existing beliefs., and part II, on how to get students to feel comfortable with intellectual risk taking.)

Svinicki's sixth chapter addresses what I suspect is a fairly common phenomenon in philosophy classrooms: "the illusion of comprehension," i.e., when students believe they have mastered some skill, body of knowledge, etc., only to witness themselves failing to demonstrate their mastery in subsequent learning tasks. It's the "I understood when you explained it in class" phenomenon. Svinicki traces this illusion to various factors:

  • Students confuse superficial familiarity with deep knowledge. I suppose an example of this might be the student who can recite the definition of argumentative validity but cannot recognize it in arguments.
  • Students study in ways that reinforce this illusion. Introductory students who study by memorizing material from flashcards are likely to be surprised come test time when they are asked to analyze evidence, extend their knowledge to new problems, defend claims, and the like.
  • Students listen to expert depictions of knowledge and assume that their comprehension is like that of the experts.
Svinicki's chapter describes ways in which we instructors can unwittingly encourage or consciously counteract this illusion via the sort of feedback we provide. In other words, she pursues this question: How can we provide feedback that encourages students to accurately self-monitor their learning (instead of ending up with the illusion of understanding)? This seems like a crucial question inasmuch as students who succumb to this illusion are likely to experience academic life as a series of frustrations or failures: They may study ardently, etc. — probably using methods inappropriate to the material they're trying to master — and end up falling short of their expectations. And my experience has been that students often do repeat the same mistakes again and again, somehow expecting that their existing learning strategies will work better than they have in the past.

I won't say much about Svinicki's particular suggestions for encouraging accurate self-monitoring. But I was struck by this passage:
Students must learn better way to monitor their own understanding while they're learning, and we must structure our class time so that these false senses of understanding will not survive. The first step in combating students' illusion of knowing is to confront them on a regular basis with evidence of their knowing or lack of it. (120)

This relates to our earlier discussion about students' "falling without getting hurt." How can we get students to confront the gaps in their knowledge in positive ways, ways that aren't discouraging or humiliating? For one, I've become a big fan of ungraded quizzes, allowing students to get a bead on the state of their own knowledge without it counting against the bottom line grade.

But does anyone out there have other ideas as to how to confront students with evidence of their not knowing in ways that help students and motivate them?


  1. Michael,

    Thanks for this! At the very least I know that I am not alone. I always called this phenomenon "the qualia of understanding" and I talk about it with my students all the time! I'm always careful to tell them that it is something I have experienced frequently myself.

    Unfortunately, the few things I do to confront this issue depend on the good luck of being at a school with very small class sizes.

    In Intro I have students turn in a short assignment every day - T F, fill in the blank and multiple choice. I try very hard to design them such that they require the application of concepts rather than the repetition of information. Students are confronted, so to speak, with an accurate picture of their comprehension on a very regular basis.

    In upper division courses each student is assigned a number of days in the semester when they are required to lead discussion. I ask them to prepare with handouts that reconstruct arguments and ask questions. I give a little lecture, then the student takes over discussion. Very often the lecture undermines the understanding reflected in the handout. If students are comfortable and not penalized this can be really instructive because often the misinterpretation is common and not special to that student. And the whole process is very public so students don't feel like they are "the only ones not getting it."

  2. I think the school environment causes the superficial or illusionary way in which students learn at school. The students have to worry about passing the test and making the grade, so they worry more about being able to believe they know what they are supposed to. In a more natural setting, a person can learn for the sake of learning and not to get good grades, so that leads them to actually get a more complete comprehension of the ideas.

  3. My teaching experience is that of a short stint as a tutorial teacher for my fellow students in engineering. I have an advantage here because I could positively point out problems with what they are learning by relating it to real life engineering situations. So they are never offended if I ever tell them that it is wrong because of this consequence. And they would appreciate it, learning that they would be using it in their carreers.

    I would like to share you something business related if you are interested. I found this site about the the Young Entrepreneur Society from the It is a great resource for entrepreneurs.

  4. Etan - Nice observation. It seems like one way to motivate students to confront their lack of understanding is to motivate them to appreciate the consequences, intellectual or otherwise, of their not noticing that lack.

    Scott - So is your thought that the pursuit of grades is a cause of students succumbing to the "illusion of comprehension"? Can you fill in that thought a bit for me?

    Becko - Those are good strategies. I think, in general, the best strategy is to find ways to decouple feedback from evaluation. Not all the feedback students get on their performance needs to be associated with their grade.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!