How guessing helps students learn

Daily Briefing

How guessing helps students learn

Guessing—rather than memorizing—information may help students with recall, according to a new psychological study by researchers Andrée-Ann Cyr and Nicole Anderson.

To conduct the study, Cyr and Anderson instructed 32 young adults to recall pairs of related words under two conditions. In the first condition, participants were asked to simply memorize the word pairings then recall them after a 10-minute break. In the second condition, participants were shown the first word, then were asked to guess what the second word could be. Researchers told participants whether their guess was close to the answer or a complete miss, then asked participants to recall the pairings after a 10-minute break.

The researchers found that participants who didn’t make any guesses had a recall rate of 54%. But participants who guessed had a 65% recall rate when their initial guess was a complete miss, and a recall rate of 79% when their initial guess was close to correct.

The study therefore suggests that people who try to work through a question to get the answer—and initially get it wrong—are more likely remember the correct answer than students who simply memorize the information.

“Our research found evidence that mistakes that are a ‘near miss’ can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all,” explains Anderson. “These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily.”

Help struggling students learn course material

Writing for Edutopia, Youki Terada suggests that guessing—coupled with feedback—can help students engage in a “productive struggle” that allows them to think through a problem and connect what they know with what they don’t know.

But incorporating guesswork into lessons may only improve students’ recall if guesswork is treated as a learning opportunity, writes Terada. Students often see incorrect guesses as mistakes, so to prevent guesswork from affecting students’ self-worth, ensure that you’re fostering a positive learning environment, Terada adds (Terada, Edutopia, 8/14).

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