A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a student about her math class. This is what she said that stood out to me:
“When he's going over the problems in class it makes so much sense. But then when I go to do it myself, I can't figure it out.”
This is called the “illusion of competence” — or, in my parlance, the Familiarity Trap. It's probably THE biggest bog that well-meaning students get mired in.
By well-meaning, I mean:
- They want to do well.
- They're paying attention.
- They're even studying.
(And, just for the record: all students check that first box. All students want to do well. Those who don't act like it struggle with belief.)
The trouble with learning, it turns out, is that it's hard. This is such an important concept from cognitive science that it's Principle #1 in my new course.
And the mind — yours, mine, our students' — is designed for avoiding needlessly hard work.
This is why familiarity — “I watched the teacher do it and it made sense” — is such a problem. Once the mind becomes familiar with an idea or process or concept in your class, it now assumes, “Okay — I'm all set here. I don't need to do anything else.” And once this assumption is made, it goes on autopilot.
Yep, the student may still study — but their study will be half-hearted, distractible, passive.
They'll do things like:
- “Go over” their notes.
- Rewatch instructional videos.
- Reread the textbook chapter.
But all that these common study practices do is reinforce familiarity. The students don't know the material any better after doing these common studious actions. They're just more familiar with it.
And then when it comes times for the test, or time to write the paragraph after the teacher modeled, or complete the practice problems in math after the lesson, you'll hear things like this:
- “I got it a minute ago, but I don't get it now!”
- “Argh, I know this one! Why can't I think of it?”
- “Mr. Stuart, I studied! But when it came time for the test, it all went blank.”
To a cognitive scientist, this is as predictable a phenomenon as the sky being blue.
Familiarity, it turns out, is way different than learning.
The solution is pretty simple, but it takes students lots of practice to get the hang of it
The key is creating more situations where students are actually required to call up and apply the information they are learning.
- The math teacher in the example I started with needs to have students complete a few problems before he releases them to independently work on the practice set. As they're doing this, he's got to go around, look over shoulders, and listen to pair talk. And the most important decision he'll make during these checks for understanding is this: when do I intervene with a struggling student and when do I let that struggle happen?
What you want is to create what researcher Robert A. Bjork calls “desirable difficulty.” This is when the learner struggles to retrieve learned information and use it on their own.
- Too much difficulty, and the learner will shut down.
- Too little, and they'll remain in the Familiarity Trap.
Perhaps the best thing a teacher can do for their practice is learn how to facilitate lots of instances of desirable difficulty — every day, for every student. Believe it or not, in my classroom this *never* looks like the kinds of drastic differentiation I learned about in my School of Ed days.
Rather, it looks like me having an ever-growing understanding of how learning works and how to make learning work in my room.
This is what the new course is all about, by the way — understanding how learning works. You can register for the first cohort today — there are only 180 or so spots left.