Friday, December 2, 2011

How do you decide whether you did well on a test?

As a parent, it is sometimes frustrating to talk to your kids about exams.  There are times when they will come home convinced that they did really well on a test only to be disappointed when the results come in.  Other times, they feel like they did quite poorly on the test and are pleasantly surprised that they scored better than they expected.  

How do people judge how well they did on a test after taking it?

This question was explored in a paper by Yana Weinstein and Roddy Roediger in the April, 2010 issue of Memory & Cognition.  They had students take tests of general knowledge questions.  Some of the questions on these tests were easy (What is the name of Tarzan’s girlfriend?).  Some of the questions were more difficult (The general named Hannibal was from what city?)  There were 50 questions on the test.

This study examined a number of different factors that might affect people’s judgments about how easy a test was including whether people could choose how many questions they wanted to answer or were forced to answer all of them, and the way that the question about test accuracy was asked.  Most of these factors had little or no consistent influence on people’s judgments of how well they did on the test.

The one factor that had a consistent effect was the ordering of the questions on the test.  When the test had the easiest questions at the beginning and the harder ones at the end, people felt like they did better on the test than when the questions were randomly ordered.  When the test had the hard questions first and then the easy ones, people actually felt like they did worse than when the questions were randomly ordered. 

Of particular interest in these results is that when the easy questions were first, people actually judged that they got more questions right than they actually did.  So the easy-to-hard ordering made people overconfident in their performance.

Why does this happen?  The authors suggest two reasons for the observed results.  First, the effect appears most strongly when people are looking back on their performance rather than when they make judgments as they are performing the test.  Research on memory finds that items that are seen early in a list are remembered better than those seen late in the list.  So, if you look back on a test, you are most likely to remember items from early in the test.  If those items are easy, then that will give you the impression that you did well overall.

Second, people often enter a test with a rough sense of how well they are going to do.  For example, if you have not prepared well for a test, you may think you are going to do poorly.  If the test starts with a number of easy questions, you may be pleasantly surprised at your performance and adjust your belief upward.  If the test starts with a number of hard questions, you may adjust your belief downward.

So, why does this matter? 

Perhaps the most important issue is one of motivation.  If your performance on an exam is worse than you thought it would be after taking the test, it can be demoralizing.  It is important to remember that your actual performance on a test is only one factor that helps you figure out how well you did.  As this work shows, the ordering of the questions matters as well.  It is no fun getting a poor grade on a test, of course, but don’t compound the disappointment by being upset that you thought you had done better.