Design Assessments to Leverage Cognitive Bias

A group of middle school students are reading well below grade level,

different schools take different approaches:

  • School A: Baised and imprecise – These teachers love the latest unproven brain research, they want to train for brain balance, train vision one eye at a time, some want to meditate still a few others want to train brain stamina with reading. A theme exists, but is inaccurate.
  • School B: Unbiased and imprecise – Some teachers want to train students for brain balance, some want to challenge with harder texts, some want to do nothing and a few want to try the latest reading recovery techniques. Teacher ideas are all over the place here.
  • School C: Biased, Precise – These teachers all believe in reading recovery and have chosen a proven resource that is 15 years old.
  • School D: Unbiased, Precise – These teachers all believe in reading recovery, its proven benefits and the latest tested resources are chosen.

How does cognitive bias effect the experience of our students Simulations of what might have happened, what could have happened?

Cognitive Bias and Classroom Testing

Much like the image and example above, students are subject to their own bias, their own perceptions and their own misconceptions. Taking a test is not an exception for cognitive bias and knowing this can empower the classroom teacher to design assessments that leverage the knowledge of coming cognitive bias to enhance the testing experience.

Framing Experiences

Assessments are experiences and we all naturally frame that experience with the evidence around us, often leading to an error in a constructed meaning about that experience. Assessments and experiences can be designed to leverage that framing by classroom teachers everyday.

Below, I will look at imperial testing results as part of that framing through reference points, but for the moment, let’s consider the teacher’s actions and words that provide students a useful frame for understanding their experience. Should a teacher be successful at modeling confidence, success, enthusiasm and excitement you will generally see students reflecting that energy. When teachers do not provide or are unconvincing then students are left to decide for themselves how to think about the experience.

For a struggling teacher, not being able to establish the culture they want, this can be heartbreaking. When one frame doesn’t fit, isn’t driving the narrative, it is best to experiment more broadly and more boldly, perhaps taking the probing questions listed below as a place to begin. When things are working but not well, perhaps a smaller degree change is in order, trying to target soft areas where the narrative has little or no control, say attitudes towards how the day is started as a routine or how activities are presented, adding in more choice and agency that promote good will.

A cognitive bias is a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. The human brain is powerful but subject to limitations Cognitive biases are often a result of your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. They are rules of thumb that help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed.

Reference Points – Conformation Bias and Availability Heuristic

Whenever I received a test back as a student, I instantly knew who to compare my results to within the class. That comparison served as a way for me to understand how to feel about the test and the last several weeks of time in that class leading to the test. This was my availability heuristic. Following the initial comparison, I might talk with friends and within moments we would likely settle on the same opinions about the test we were given. “Was it a fair test” “Was the test difficult” and more are all likely to be answered similarly because we were naturally playing into conformation bias.

Many years ago as a young teacher I was assigned to try out an early online testing portal for the Scantron company. Sitting in a computer lab, my students took a moderate sized 8th grade chemistry assessment. With a few minutes to kill at the end of the class period, I decided to project the instantly available results to the students that showed anonymous aggregated test grades, how many A, B, C, D, and F grades there are in the class. It was instant fodder for conversation within the class, a rather healthy conversation centered around group performance. Without fully understanding what I was doing, the class and I pierced though conformation bias by using this instant empirical information and I set up what they would use in an availability heuristic by providing class scores before they even had to freely talk with their peers. I suddenly could drive the narrative that would exist in students minds about their performance and about the test itself. It struck me that I could shape the narrative around student satisfaction with their test given how information was provided to them and knowing meant I now must design for student experience from here on out.

Building in helpful reference points are important to assessment design as student experience is a necessary consideration to overall assessment design. Students are the most powerful consumer of student data.

Using pretests as a self reference point rather than students finding and picking a peer to compare themselves to. This leads in an instant understanding of personal growth at the post test. Without some sort of self reference point, a teacher would need to pick a reference point impersonal to an individual student or leave the reference point up to students to pick themselves, driving their own narrative about the results. In my book, I refer to the self reference as a the True Growth Metric. This is just as you might expect and the name frames the experience around growing in skills and ability quite well.

I’ve also found that parents appreciate the pre/post tests as a demonstration of student learning. Being able to use student artifacts to tell the story of student growth do so much more than the words of a teacher. The reference points then again become about a single student’s growth and comparisons made by the parent can now be framed within a single student’s growth and not dependent on comparing endpoints of several students.

Self reference isn’t the only option a teacher has. Using pre and post test graphs to show students how similar they are in their peer group, to see that they are in a shared experience. These are graphs that show an aggregate of student scores that have no names and are fully anonymous. The graph does much more than a teacher’s words can do as the graph has the trust of empirical data whereas a teacher’s expression of student success may not be viewed as representative of the data.

Questions to consider when designing assessments for student experience.

  • What reactions, comments and actions are students making to tell you about the cognitive biases you students are experiencing?
  • How can you build in the reference points that will prove to be helpful for a student to frame their understanding of their own performance?
  • Where is the class/school culture narrative not in your control and where can you identify the availability heuristic or conformation bias at work? How do you want to provide imperial evidence to drive the narrative?
  • What about pre/post tests or modeling student growth can you do to build useful reference points into you design?


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