Imagine you've just finished teaching a class and feel confident that genuine learning has taken place. A student stops you on the way out to ask a question. The question betrays the student's utter lack of understanding of the topic. You can't believe it! “How could you ask that?” rattles through your brain but doesn't escape your mouth. You answer and head to your office, stopping to share the disturbing experience with a colleague. He commiserates and recounts a similar story.
Or maybe this has happened: You finish teaching a section of content and prepare an exam. You feel good about your teaching and are confident that students have mastered the material. They've participated in discussion, asked good questions, and responded thoughtfully to yours. You give the exam and grade it. To your surprise, the grade distribution reveals that students did not do well at all! You try to figure out why. After returning the exam, you ask students what happened. They don't know. They tell you it was a hard test.
Clearly we are not always accurate in predicting students' learning. Of equal concern, though, is the certainty of our belief that students are learning. The roots of these cognitive errors may lie in the common phenomenon of overconfidence bias that social psychologists have written about extensively. People (and that includes professors) tend to be more confident than correct when assessing the accuracy of their beliefs and judgments. On the bright side, there are ways of managing this overconfidence bias.
Research suggests that in situations where we have little knowledge, overconfidence bias is especially powerful. The classroom then may be the perfect setting to observe this phenomenon. Although we all have content expertise, most college professors (except those in education) have not been formally educated about effective teaching and learning. We've learned to teach on the fly. We know that we know the material, we convey it to others, so how can they not be learning?
We see this as a two-part problem. Part one involves the issue of how good we are at assessing our own performance in the classroom. How accurate are our answers to these questions: How well have students learned the material I taught? Do I know when students haven't gotten it? Do I recognize when I need to take more time and add more resources?
Experience suggests that we are often wrong in our assessments of how well students are learning. Why is this? We seem easily misled by singular examples. When one student answers a question correctly in class, we move on, believing that if one person provided a correct answer, then they must all be “getting it.” Moreover, we're so familiar with the content, we know it so well, we can't imagine students struggling to understand it. Besides, we WANT them to understand it.
The second part of the problem is even more alarming than the first. Whether or not we can accurately assess if students are learning, we are likely to be falsely confident about the accuracy of our conclusion. We don't question what we believe to be true, and this effectively blocks behavior change. When we are supremely confident that we are correct, in almost any area of life we close our minds to data that contradicts this perception and do little self-assessment. We stop considering alternative points of view, dismiss contradictory data, and blame others for the problem. For teachers, a dangerous internal dialogue can follow. “It can't be that I did not teach that well. I know when my teaching is good and when it isn't. I did a good job on that. I'm sure of it. These students just need to …”
Social cognitive research suggests some ways we can deal with this overconfidence bias. Step one is simply recognizing the ease with which we make this cognitive error. If we deny that this could happen to us, we are just doubling down on our overconfidence. This vulnerability is easier to acknowledge if we do not equate it with a lack of intelligence or poor character. It's simply a part of being human.
Step two involves confronting some hard questions. What do the learning assessments I am using say about my teaching effectiveness? Which parts of my content lessons were well learned, and was there a difference between how I taught those sections and those that students didn't understand? How much variability was there in student performance, and what are the implications of that variability?
Step three involves seeking (and really listening to) feedback from our students. Their messages about our effectiveness may be eye-opening and will help disabuse us of our overconfidence. But this can be challenging for teachers. Overconfidence leads us to be sure that certain ways of teaching and certain exercises and demands are positive, even essential, for the learning process. But we may be wrong. Students may have different perspectives on what helps them learn. Our lectures may be well crafted and entertaining, but if that small-group activity at the end of class really helped students learn, we may need to rethink our use of class time. Students are in a unique position to help us evaluate our instructional effectiveness more realistically.
We criticize students who are overconfident. We encourage them to examine their beliefs, to question and challenge themselves with information from others. Let's make sure we are doing the same for ourselves. If we do, we may be able to inoculate ourselves against the natural tendency to view teaching performance overconfidently.