Is Guessing the Answer?

In which year were the series of peace treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia signed?

Of course you could go and Google it, but it’s a year that is branded into my brain. Before studying for a degree in Psychology I was a student of International Relations and Politics and, seeing as the date was crucial in the development of international cooperation, it’s become one of those dates I will always remember.

Don’t know? Have a guess, you might get it right.

We’ve all said the same thing to our students, right? When their frightened faces look up in response to the sound of their name being called and stare at us like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a speeding car.

But is guessing helpful?

Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologist extraordinaire and world-renowned expert on eyewitness testimony thinks not. In fact, she thinks guessing can be downright dangerous. In 1978 Loftus, along with Reid Hastie and Robert Landsman, found that when individuals are encouraged to guess on a test, their incorrect answer often crops up on a later test (Hastie et al., 1978).

Elizabeth Marsh and Henry Roediger (along with Robert and Elizabeth Bjork) also reached similar conclusions in their 2007 study, concluding that when people make errors on multiple choice tests the errors can persist on later cued-recall tests (when participants are given ‘cues’ to help them recall previously seen material) (Marsh et al., 2007)

These and other research studies have led leading cognitive psychologists and experts on eyewitness testimony to suggest that guessing can be dangerous because, when people guess, they might later recall their incorrect guesses as being correct. The problem, then, is one of memory; when people are forced to guess the answer on a test they often remember their guesses as being part of the original to be learned list, which perhaps explains why teachers continue to receive incorrect answers from students even when told that the answer they have given is wrong.

The problem with this, however, is that results can often be inconsistent. Other studies have identified the benefits of unsuccessful retrieval to learning. As long as the correct answer is, in the end, generated by the student or provided by the teacher then the error shouldn’t carry over to subsequent tests. Bridgid Finn found that when unsuccessful retrieval attempts were followed by feedback, long-term retention was better than when the correct answer was just given (Finn et al., 2012).

This shows that not only is the testing effect replicated, but also that feedback is vital in order to correct any errors or misconceptions (it also highlight the fallibility of memory, something for next time perhaps).

And the answer to the question?

The treaties brought to a close the series of related conflicts known as the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to the signing of the treaties in 1648.

References.

Finn, B., Roediger, H. & Rosenzweig, E. (2012). Reconsolidation from negative emotional pictures: Is successful retrieval required? Memory & Cognition. 40 (7). p.pp. 1031–1045.

Hastie, R., Landsman, R. & Loftus, E.L. (1978). Eyewitness Testimony: The Danger of Guessing. Jurimetrics Journal. (Fall). p.pp. 1–8.

Marsh, E.J., Roediger, H.L., Bjork, R.A. & Bjork, E.L. (2007). The memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 14 (2). p.pp. 194–199.

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5 thoughts on “Is Guessing the Answer?

  1. Brian

    Fascinating.

    Is the suggestion that during the learning process, when one does not know the answer for sure one should never guess as the act of guessing itself forms a memory for later recall of the incorrect answer.

    If yes, does it make a difference if a person thinks they have the right answer but do not, get it wrong and surely the same process will apply.

    Just checking

    Reply
  2. Marc Smith (@PsychologyMarc)

    Hi Brian, The incorrect answer effectively forms a false memory that is highly resilient. The danger is that the false memory will remain unless explicitly altered via detailed feedback – simply saying ‘no, the correct answer is 1648’ won’t be enough to remove the false memory. If they are convinced, I suspect it could either way but the most probable would be that the emotional jolt of discovering you’re wrong when you were convinced you were right would be enough to correct the error.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      Thanks for the reply. I will give it some more thought.

      As an old timer it sounds a bit like Kurt Lewin’s unfreezing….changing….refreezing

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Emotion and the Testing Effect. | Psych(ed)

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