“Familiarity fools our minds into
thinking we know more than we do.”
If you have ever been surprised by a poor test result, you are not alone. “Very often, students will think they understand a body of material. Believing that they know it, they stop trying to learn more. But, come test time, it turns out they really don’t know the material.” Dr. Daniel Willingham [pdf] is referring to a common challenge for many students; the ability to distinguish between familiarity and recollection.
The recollection myth
TeamUP! Tutors gets requests for help with all subjects, from algebra and geometry to essay writing and chemistry. Regardless of the subject, we hear frequently laments that the student did the homework, studied the material, but then bombed the test. So what’s going on?
Willingham explains that a student may think he knows more than he actually does because, following a homework assignment or class lecture, he feels confident in his knowledge. What is missing is putting this belief to the test… before the actual test. Does the student really know the material well enough to recollect the content or is he simply familiar with it?
Know the target information
Students who say they know the material, but perform poorly on the test have likely overestimated their true level of understanding or misidentified the target information. By building strong study skills, students can help themselves learn what they need to know:
- Complete all assignments to get the big picture
- Eliminate distractions and avoid multitasking
- Study one section at a time, starting days before the test
- Use flashcards, study guides, notes, quizzes, etc
- Exchange homemade exams with a friend
- Ask a parent or classmate to quiz you on the material
- Revisit difficult concepts until you have them down
Finally, avoid tricking yourself into believing you know more than you really do. Try asking, “Do I understand this material well enough to teach it to someone unfamiliar with the subject?” Then, double check how well you know the critical information by explaining to someone else.
For example, prior to a test on the history of Hinduism, a student may recall that Hindus have four goals in life, “pleasure and success, dharma, moksha, and reincarnation.” This may lead her to believe she is ready for the test even if she has not mastered the target information. In order to teach someone else, she must also be prepared to define the meaning of each goal, explain why Hindus strive to meet these goals, and give examples of how these goals helped to shape Indian society.
So the next time you think, “That test was so unfair” or “I just don’t test well,” consider whether you invested the time necessary to recall specific details or if you, in fact, entered the test with only a cursory understanding of the material. Then decide what you will do differently to ace the next one.