Harnessing Cognitive Dissonance to Improve Student Learning

You may remember the story of William Miller, the Baptist preacher who predicted that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would take place on October 22, 1844. disillusionment.

But some did not. In the face of Miller’s failed prophecies, true believers found ways to preserve their prior beliefs.

Loyalists reinterpreted Miller’s prophecies. Some have insisted that Christ returned to earth spiritually on October 22n/a, marking the beginning of a new era of atonement. Others have claimed or that the date witnessed the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary, a precursor to Christ’s second coming.

These ideas have helped shape several religious sects, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Baha’i Faith.

We’ve all heard variations of Thomas Huxley’s phrase from 1870: “the great tragedy of science – the murder of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”. Facts can indeed be stubborn things, but prior beliefs and ideological commitments often trump facts.

Why do questionable ideas persist even after being challenged?

Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance offers a widely cited answer. Just because an idea has been invalidated empirically does not mean it is discredited. Rather than rejecting prior ideas, people find ways to reconcile, excuse, rationalize, and modify their prior beliefs to reduce dissonance, tension, or contradictions between those prior beliefs and current realities.

In other words, we see what we want to see.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when our predictions, preferences, and predilections are contradicted. As we will see, we can exploit this concept to improve student learning.

Non-confirmation bias – the tendency to uncritically accept evidence that supports our beliefs and to actively criticize, refute, or dismiss evidence that challenges those beliefs – is particularly common, I regret to say, in the field of education.

The human tendency to cling to dubious, dubious, or even discredited ideas is as true in higher education as in any other field.

  • Why do students persist in study habits – such as cramming or mass practice or reading and rereading a reading passage, instead of active retrieval, spaced repetition or explanation of a difficult concept—that turn out to be sub-optimal or counter-productive?
  • Why do colleges continue to offer remedial courses as a solution to lack of academic preparation, even though educational evidence indicates that these courses are often a black hole?
  • Why don’t instructors make more use of empirically validated best practices, such as frequent quizzes, timely feedback, requiring students to answer “profound” questions, and combining verbal and graphical representations , abstract and concrete concepts and information?

Partly out of ignorance, inertia and intuition. Partly because the status quo seems easier or reflects someone’s self-interest. But also because of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out, favor, interpret information in such a way as to confirm previous beliefs and pre-existing practices.

My conclusion: as irritating as it is, we must always be ready to challenge the status quo.

Recently, difficult questions have been raised about a number of widely touted educational innovations.

  • Whether elective or blind admissions are a better or worse indicator of academic ability or student potential or achievement than high school transcripts, grade point averages, course titles taken, or letters of recommendations or application essays or extracurricular lists, and whether or not these approaches will increase the transparency and predictability of admissions.
  • Whether digital learning is comparable to in-person undergraduate learning, and if so, for which students and in which courses.

Often, of course, the evidence is thorny.

Take the example of math pathways, which offer distinct sequences of math courses for community college students who intend to major in arts and humanities, social sciences, or STEM fields, and offer pedagogies that emphasize active solving of real-world problems in small groups.

Randomized controlled experiments have shown that this approach increases the number of math credits earned, but does not result in an increase in students’ academic progress or overall graduation. As a result, course content and pedagogies have undergone a major overhaul.

If there are any institutions that should be keen to embrace evidence-based practice – rigorous, reproducible research with verifiable results – it should be colleges and universities. Yet too often, higher education does not subject its practices to the same forms of rigorous critical scrutiny that we expect in other fields.

I am convinced that we can take advantage of the concept of cognitive dissonance to improve student learning.

How? Here are some strategies you can easily adopt.

1. Alert your students to assumptions, mindsets and biases that interfere with learning.
Students often enter the classroom with certain assumptions that can negatively affect their learning. For example, that they hate history or that they are bad at math or unable to learn a foreign language or that they learn best kinesthetically, visually, or through lectures or, alternatively, through discussions.

Confront these presumptions head on and explain why they are false.

2. Help your students recognize the cognitive distortions that negatively influence the way we think.
Too often we jump to conclusions. Or reason emotionally. Or over-generalize, exaggerate or minimize the positive (or negative), or adopt overly simplistic dualities. Or refuse to change an opinion despite evidence to the contrary.

Recognizing these distortions is the first step to overcoming these cognitive predispositions.

3. Actively confront confirmation bias, the tendency to cling to preconceived beliefs.
Help your students identify their existing assumptions and introduce data, sources, alternative perspectives, and other information that challenges those assumptions. Also help your students reflect on their emotional resistance to alternative viewpoints or explanations.

4. Challenge your students to think deeper.
Precisely because we tend to reject, dismiss, or downplay information inconsistent with our pre-existing beliefs, critical thinking is essential. Provide students with various types of evidence or sources that can dispel myths, faulty assumptions, and faulty beliefs. Undertake surveys or inquiries that address existing interpretations, beliefs or perceptions.

5. Encourage metacognition.
Create opportunities for self-reflection in your lessons. Nurture mindfulness and self-awareness, and build students’ ability to track and assess their mastery of course material and adjust their study strategies.

Cognitive dissonance theory is based on the recognition that discomfort, stress, and anxiety arise whenever there is tension or contradiction between pre-existing beliefs and conflicting realities. People often try to cope with this discomfort through a variety of mechanisms: denial, escape, and various excuses, rationalizations, and justifications.

But learning requires discomfort. Clumsiness, awkwardness, and awkwardness often accompany the early stages of the learning process. We reveal our ignorance. We make mistakes. We get the wrong answers.

Precisely because learning tends to be stressful, emotionally painful and shameful, successful learning requires courage.

It is our job as teachers to challenge students if we want them to grow and mature cognitively and emotionally. If students are not outside their comfort zone, they are unlikely to actively process information, learn new skills, or internalize new concepts.

Of course, the need to make students feel uncomfortable is never an excuse to put them down, belittle them, or patronize them. Our goal – to foster critical and metacognitive thinking – is to strengthen their analytical and evaluative skills, not to minimize their inherited opinions or deeply held beliefs.

But make it clear to your students: complacency undermines learning, which necessarily forces us to question our assumptions, conventional wisdom, and generally accepted theories and understandings.

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

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