I’ll give you just one dramatic and disturbing example. We asked them, at the end of the first study I mentioned above, whether they thought a revised choice was more likely to be correct than a first instinct.
Despite the fact that their actual choices and ratings, moments earlier, clearly showed that revisions were better, the overwhelming majority of students falsely believed that their original choice would be the best.
That is the dramatic part.
The disturbing part is that an even larger majority reported that a professor or teacher – apparently unaware of the huge body of literature to the contrary – had specifically told them that first choices were mostly likely to be correct.
Thus, the key to knowing when to stick with your first instinct and when to change your mind is to track feelings of confidence during the moment you make the decision.
During college exams, both revising and sticking with original answers had the potential to result in more correct than incorrect answers.
Only the self-tracking of confidence levels predicted when each was more appropriate. By using that simple form of metacognition, students could better identify which questions to revise and which were better left alone.
Making informed decisions
This leads to problems in almost every area of decision-making. Most of these problems stem from the fact that our beliefs about ourselves and our personal histories are usually formed long before or after a decision, not “in the moment.”
Upon reflection, things often seem much different than they actually were.
Tracking how you feel while initially making a decision can provide valuable information later, can help you make more informed choices and will better prepare you to revise your initial decision when necessary.
I would encourage all educators to consider these findings both while administering exams and while forming their own beliefs about how students learn and take tests. Like the students themselves, our reflective beliefs often differ from the actual experience.
Students benefit from a system that allows them to build metacognitive skill, and they will generally make better decisions if they use empirically validated information about their confidence rather than a folk belief or popular misconception. It is also relatively simple to do this during paper-based or electronic exams, so there is little cost.
Educators would, perhaps most importantly, be wary of giving advice based on their subjective beliefs or (almost certainly) unreliable memories, and instead be able to foster a useful skill based on memory and metacognition research.