How Cognitive Bias Hinders Student Success

Steps you can take to combat the cognitive errors that contribute to self-sabotage.

November 1, 2021

Bias. It’s the word of the hour.

We typically invoke the term to describe prejudice against a particular group of people. We equate bias with ageism, classism, homophobia, racism, sexism or xenophobia.

But there are other kinds of bias that we should guard against. These are the cognitive biases that distort our behavior, cloud our judgment and color our memory.

There is affinity bias (the tendency to favor those who resemble us), attribution bias (making inferences about other people’s behavior), confirmation bias (seeking or interpreting evidence to support our existing beliefs) and selection bias (where the objects of study differ systematically from the population of interest).

I could add many other kinds of cognitive bias, for example, implicit bias (making judgments based on stereotypes rather than data) and perception bias (favoring those who are more attractive or taller or younger) -- as well as the halo effect (where a single positive attribute leads one to overvalue or overlook other attributes), overfitting and underfitting (creating models that are overly complicated or overly simplistic), and confounding (where variables outside the model distort a causal explanation).

All told, Wikipedia lists 185 different forms of cognitive bias.

Linking these various kinds of bias is a recognition that all, much like gender or racial bias, can occur without conscious intentionality. Each rests on assumptions, emotions, prejudices, stereotypes and various presuppositions.

The most obvious examples of unconscious bias are our intuitions. Intuition, I would argue, epitomizes bias.

Unconscious bias helps account for many errors in judgment and behavior.

Take, for example, proportionality bias, assuming that a big event must have a similarly large cause, or recency bias, giving greater importance to recent events than to those in the past, or hindsight bias, the claim, after an event, that one foresaw the outcome.

Bias can also distort our memory. Unpleasant memories may fade or sometimes intensify, false memories may be mistaken for true memories and subsequent events may modify our memories. Egocentric bias may lead us to recall the past in a self-serving manner; consistency bias may let us believe that our past and present attitudes are unswerving.

As educators, we need to recognize how cognitive bias can impede student success.

Why do I mention all these biases? Because conscious awareness can help us overcome them.

For example, the science of learning has demonstrated that there are ways to strengthen long-term memories: through the generation effect (when a memory is retrieved or processed), interleaving (studying multiple subjects rather than focusing on one), spaced practice (practicing a skill over time) and frequent quizzing.

Or to take another example: if students are aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect -- the tendency of novices to overestimate their mastery of a particular concept or skill -- we can create problem sets that will allow students to better assess their command of a subject.

Instructors, in my view, have an obligation to address students’ cognitive biases head-on.

  • Given students’ tendency to underestimate the time required to complete a task, it is helpful to share our estimate about how long a particular task will take.
  • Given the common tendency to procrastinate when faced with an overwhelming workload or a formidable set of choices, we’d do well to break an assignment into manageable chunks.
  • Given students’ tendency to cram, which we know is an ineffective way to study, we might replace high-stakes exams with more frequent and targeted assessments.

What about nudges?

In an earlier role as a director of student success initiatives, I was frustrated by the failure of behavioral nudges to work as effectively as I hoped (much as many of us are dismayed by the failure of various incentives and advertisements to drive higher numbers of COVID vaccinations).

Variations in message framing didn’t make a difference. Sometimes, nudges don’t nudge.

I’m not alone in seeing nudges sometimes fail to make a meaningful difference. A study of the effectiveness of text messaging and college application fee waivers for low- and middle-income students in the top half of the SAT distribution failed to demonstrate changes in enrollment patterns. Ditto for a study of the effect of nudges on the number of students who completed the FAFSA financial aid form.

In those cases, more aggressive interventions may well be necessary. There is reason to believe that high-touch interventions, involving an in-person interaction, are more likely to work than low-touch nudges like email. Changes in course structure can also make a measurable difference.

Many students at critical transition points, for instance, a shift in major, failed to meet with an adviser. Coercion, in the form of registration holds, didn’t work. What might have worked was a more proactive approach.

Nudges also didn’t prompt many poorly performing students to visit the campus’s math and science learning centers and the writing center or participate in a bridge program.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that much of the students’ hesitance stemmed from their commuter status: they couldn’t fit a visit to a tutoring center into their busy schedules. The obstacle wasn’t a lack of knowledge or a misguided mind-set; it was a time problem.

It would have made more sense to make study groups, tutoring and coaching, and supplemental instruction as an integral part of high DFW courses, overcoming the students’ short-term bias -- the tendency to prioritize short-term over long-term thinking.

Cognitive bias may not be as obviously pernicious as prejudice and bigotry, but it, nevertheless, has many deleterious consequences inside classrooms and in the broader society. As Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated 50 years ago, cognitive bias can affect our students’ cognition, perception, motivation, memory and behavior.

Teaching students about cognitive bias is, I would argue, too important to be left to introductory psychology classes. If we want our students to reason logically, opine judiciously and analyze critically, they need to understand the cognitive tricks that our brains play on us.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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