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Illusions of Knowledge

Ms. Vita Biddle

Students studying outside

Think of a penny! Quick! Are you picturing a copper-colored, small, round coin with a smooth edge? Is there a President’s face on it? If so, which way is it facing? Words? Are there any? Are they English or Latin? What do they say? What about the back? Is there anything pictured or written on it? Are there any numbers? Where are they located?

If you are not able to answer some of these questions, you are not alone. Of course, we are all familiar with pennies, but do we really “know” pennies? Perhaps we do not know them as well as we think we do.

This conundrum is the same for much of what our students experience when preparing for assessments in school. They may think they “know” their material, when, in fact, they are merely “familiar” with it. We call this an illusion of knowledge.

When students are tasked with preparing for a test, they are often given a study guide. That, coupled with their other resources (notes, texts, etc.) is what they generally use to study. It is important that they interact with this material in a way that proves their knowledge rather than their familiarity with the concepts.  Often, students will “check off” items on their study guide, signaling that they “know” it, when they really are just recalling the idea that they have heard it, have seen it, or know that it is “on the test.” This is not proof of knowledge. This is simply the idea that they are familiar with the material.

To prove knowledge, students should be able to produce a written, digital, oral, or pictorial product that shows the depth of their understanding. Creating such a product is actually  part of the encoding process of memory. This step is integral in understanding and retention of information. Surely, encoding takes place in the classroom. Activities and lessons provided by teachers encourage this encoding process. For the information to really gain some “stickiness,” it is best for students to create their own opportunities for encoding. 

What should that look like?

Well, here’s what it shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t look like students staring at a book, screen, or printed piece of paper. Instead, they should be creating a physical representation that proves they have manipulated the information themselves - made it their own, so to speak. Creating a slidedeck, re-writing notes in a creative way, categorizing information into groups, drawing symbols for ideas, color-coding, re-telling, making flash cards - these are all ways students can prove they “know” something deeply and not just superficially. A good rule of thumb as to whether your child is ready for a test or not is to ask them a question. If they respond by saying, “I know it, but I can’t explain it,” then, they really don’t “know” it. 

Think of the penny again. Familiarity is quick. That’s because it is superficial. Recollection, or knowledge, is slow. It is deep and requires our brains to make connections, analyze, and understand.

For further information on this topic, I suggest reading Outsmart My Brain by Daniel Willngham. I had the opportunity to hear him speak recently at a Learning and the Brain conference. Learning and the Brain’s mission is to connect educators with the latest scientific research and evidence-based practices to improve instruction and interventions in schools.

Dr. Dahra Williams

About the Author

Vita Biddle, Independence's LeApps™ Specialist, has been on the Independence faculty since 1992. She is also a team member  of the Center for Wellness, Innovation and  Learning (CWIL).

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