"But I thought I did better than that!"

by Bill Goffe, senior lecturer, Economics, College of the Liberal Arts


Professor Goffe in conversation with one of his Econ students

This might be one of the most common phrases that instructors hear from students, but at the same time it can be puzzling. How can students so mislead themselves? Further, is there anything an instructor might do to help students better assess their own performance?

In his column "Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don't," cognitive scientist Dan Willingham describes this phenomena and provides guidance on how to reduce it. While written for K-12 teachers, almost all of it applies to university instructors. It might be worth mentioning that Willingham is a noted researcher and textbook author, and if his "RateMyProfessor" ratings are to be believed, he is effective in the classroom. I suspect that many Penn State instructors will find this article both enlightening and useful.

In my own teaching (I primarily teach Econ 104, principles of macroeconomics), I follow Willingham's suggestions and have come across several other techniques. One is frequent challenging clicker questions so that students have many opportunities to practice their thinking in a low-stakes Photo of students in Goffe's Econ course fashion. This should lead to deeper understanding and thus more accurate performance predictions. Another is having them explain their reasoning on homeworks to again help in the same way. A third is to have them read ahead in the text and answer essay questions in Canvas on the readings (these are called "JiTTs" for "Just in Time Teaching" and are graded generously). One question always includes "What did you find puzzling, interesting, or surprising in these readings?" By explicitly focusing on hazy concepts, their understanding thus should improve. JiTTs also inform me about common student misunderstandings. A fourth method is to emphasize that rereading and highlighting are poor study methods and they lead to students thinking that they understand more than they do.

Please contact SITE to schedule an appointment to learn how to implement these or other teaching strategies into your course.

Images: © Martin Springborg (http://springborgphoto.com) and Penn State, 2015. Courtesy of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State.