Assessing What You Know

23.09.2018 |

Episode #9 of the course The science of learning by Benjamin Keep


Welcome back.

Last lesson, we discussed the traits of useful feedback. Today, we’re going to continue our discussion about a particular form of feedback: assessments of what you know.

Effective learners find time to frequently and accurately assess what they have learned. Like defining specific, actionable learning goals, accurate measurements of what you know help you focus on what to learn next. These assessments provide metacognitive knowledge: They tell learners how well they are learning. Often but not always, we think we can do more than they actually can because we don’t realize what we know (and what we don’t).


Recognition Is Not Recall

One of the most basic mistakes we make when assessing what we know is mistaking recognition for recall.

Recognition is about knowing whether we saw something before: “His face looks familiar” or “I’ve seen this word before.” Recall is about remembering something without any other prompts: “I can imagine his face from memory” or “I can write the word down.” The difference between recognition and recall is profound. Recognizing the letter “R” is easy; writing and using the letter “R” is substantially more difficult.

It’s common for students to re-read textbooks as a way of studying for tests. This leads people to think they understand the material because it seems familiar to them: They recognize it. But tests ask for a different kind of skill: Students don’t just have to recognize familiar concepts, they have to recall and apply those concepts. It’s far better to practice the skill that you will be tested on when you study: If a test asks for recall and application, practice recall and application; if it asks for recognition, practice recognition.


Knowing That Is Different Than Knowing How To

People also tend to mistake “knowing that” for “knowing how to.” This frequently comes up in math and science. Students mistake knowing a formula for knowing how to apply the formula. If we study basketball, we can explain the steps to the perfect jump shot, but not be able to perform it ourselves.

There are also cases where we might know how to do something, but we can’t explain what we know. I can ride a bike but have trouble explaining what I do to ride a bike. Often, expert performance has become so automatic that experts can’t explain how they do what they do, at least not without considerable effort.

It’s best to think of “knowing that” and “knowing how to” as two distinct kinds of knowledge.


I Knew It All Along

The third common mistake is the “knew it all along” effect. We read something or hear something and think, “Oh yeah, that makes sense,” even if we couldn’t have articulated that something at all beforehand.

Suppose you want to teach someone basic physics. You can show people a video that explains the force on a ball after it leaves a juggler’s hand. People like the video: It’s clear, concise, and easy to understand. But when they take a test, they probably won’t learn about physics forces. Why? They haven’t realized that their own explanation differs from what they’ve been shown. A better way of teaching this idea is ask the learner for a prediction about the forces involved. When that happens, it creates a contrast between the prediction and the correct explanation, which requires the learner to reconcile that contrast.


How Can These Ideas Help?

Seek out assessments that test the right skill. If you really need to recognize something, test your recognition. If you need to recall something, use generation activities. Assessments that test your explanation of something are very different than those that assess whether you can do something.

Make predictions before reading or hearing explanations. That will help you avoid the “knew it all along” effect.

When you evaluate whether you know something, don’t just rely on how familiar it seems to you: Use a performance assessment.

For my Chinese studying, I can’t just read textbook explanations about grammatical structures to remind myself of them. I also don’t want assessments that ask me to use the structures in a formulaic way (e.g., “Substitute these words for those words, then say the sentence again”). The right kind of assessment would ask me to generate appropriate sentences for a given situation.

In the final lesson, we’ll take a step back and think about how to keep improving the ways that we learn.

Happy learning!



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Recommended book

Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts


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