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The Illusion of Comprehension

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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I studied so hard for the test. I was sure that I had it down cold. And I still got a C! How is that possible?" wailed an unhappy student in one of my undergraduate classes. You've probably had the same experience with your own students on a regular basis. We are all notoriously bad at predicting or evaluating our own performance level on a test.


The posting below looks at the differences between recognizing and comprehending , It is from Chapter 6, Helping Students Motivate Themselves, in Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom by Marilla D. Svinicki, University of Texas-Austin. Published by Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 176 Ballville Road P.O. Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA. [] Copyright ? 2004 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN 1-882982-59-2 Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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The research literature refers to this [above quote] as the illusion of comprehension (Druckman & Bjork, 1994). Students are afflicted with this malady on a regular basis for some good reasons. First of all, students sometimes confuse familiarity with knowing. They believe they know something if they can recognize it. This is exacerbated by the kinds of tests we often give, those that are multiple choice rather than response production. The answer that looks familiar will be considered correct because they've seen it before somewhere. Unfortunately, the students are often correct using this strategy, which only strengthens their beliefs about understanding being the same as familiarity.

This particular misapprehension is probably behind the students' use of flash cards and rereading as their primary means of study. They find comfort in looking at the same material over and over, mistaking their recognition of it in familiar context with an ability to recognize it out of context. The tests, however, usually ask them to think about the content in another context simply because test questions are not usually formatted like flash cards. Let me repeat an analogous situation in my own experience (and perhaps yours) that I described in Chapter 5. To learn my students' names, I take their photo at the beginning of the semester and create flash cards with their picture on one side and their name on the other. In a fairly short time I can name each picture with 100% accuracy. Does that mean I know their names? No, it doesn't, because the students are not the same as their pictures. They don't wear the same clothes that they are wearing in the picture every da!

y; their hair differs from day to day in style and sometimes in color; their expression differs from moment to moment. So I find that, although I can rattle off their names pretty rapidly in response to those pictures, the real students sometimes don't provide the right cues for me to recall their names. It takes multiple trials with both pictures and the real students before I am comfortable with everyone's name. The point here is that I have the illusion of knowing their names if all I have to do is identify the pictures that I have taken. Take me out of that context and I'm likely not to recognize them at first. Eventually, in the course of the first few weeks, I do get enough trials to learn everyone's name, but I experience a lot of misplaced certainty about knowing their names at first. Likewise, students who depend on a recognition situation to evaluate how well they know something are likely to feel a false sense of certainty about their knowledge level.

Another condition that makes this illusion so powerful is the subjective experience of listening to a skilled presenter or expert describe a problem solution. The fluency of the expert gives the listeners the illusion of understanding or the belief that the material is clear and easy to understand. This feeling that the material is easy then contributes to the false sense of security that students take away from a well-presented lecture. How often have you heard a complaint that, "I understood it when you worked it out in class, but when I tried to do it myself, I couldn't even start"? Perhaps you've even experienced that phenomenon yourself, possibly in the context of having someone explain to you how to operate some piece of software on your computer. It looks so easy when you're doing it with an expert. Unfortunately, students probably use that false assessment of the difficulty of material to determine how much and how to study. Because they are under the illusion!

that the material is easy, they feel they won't need much study time.

This feeling of knowing is sometimes referred to as "general monitoring"-or a learner's ability to make accurate judgments about how well he or she will or has performed. Psychologists are interested in figuring out how general monitoring works and whether it is specific to a particular domain of knowledge (I can tell how well I'm doing in tennis, but now in math) or is a general skill that cuts across all fields. Some general findings from this literature have been summarized by Schraw, Dunkle, Bendixen, and Roedel (1995). Their findings are interesting. First they say that the learners' accuracy in judging their progress depends on when you ask them. If you ask immediately after a response, their judgment is not as accurate as it would be if you asked later. Schraw and his colleagues also found that individuals who had a lot of knowledge about an area were not necessarily good at monitoring their own accuracy. They tended to make quicker judgments that were sometime!

s wrong. A related finding was that monitoring ability was not related to intelligence, but it was possibly related to temperament. People who are impatient are less able to judge their own accuracy.

Of course, we contribute to inaccurate self-monitoring by the kinds of strategies we often use in teaching. Two very well-known psychologists, Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (1985), have discussed the kinds of instructional strategies that lead students to believe that knowing something at the surface level is the same as understanding it. I list below some of the strategies they identify that explain how we might collude with students in allowing them the illusion of knowing rather than really knowing a subject.

1) When we order the items on the test in the same order that the concepts were presented in the unit itself, students can use the order of the test to interpret what is being asked for. The temporal cues signal which part of the chapter the question is dealing with. This is similar to what happens when the math problems at the end of the chapter are based on procedures from that chapter only. A student will know that if the question is at the end of Chapter 4, it's asking about reciprocals, which is the topic of Chapter 4. It could never be about any other formula.

2) When we phrase the test items in a manner that is too similar to the way the material was always presented in class, students will learn to use the phrasing or special words as a way of telling what the question is about. (For example, asking "how many apples were left?" cues the learner that this is a subtraction problem because they know the word "left" as a cue.)

3) When we allow students to respond to a question with almost anything that even remotely resembles the answer and give them credit for it-the "gentleman's C" phenomenon-we may limit their deep understanding. Without a necessity to go beyond the surface cues and really differentiate among concepts, students will go only so far and no farther.

Bereiter and Scardamalia point out that many of these teaching strategies are very common and have some good reasons behind them. They do not advocate abandoning them. They simply want us to realize that these could contribute to making students think they understand more than they really do.

Actually, the behaviors described by Bereiter and Scardamalia are learning strategies that students use to guide their study and learning. It just happens that these are not strategies we want them to use! Without meaning to be lazy or dishonest, students are really just using cues that seem to work in helping them remember content. When they use these cues, they have a false sense of security about how well they understand the content. What we would prefer is that they use the key characteristics that truly differentiate concepts from one another as the basis for their learning.