Students’ mistaken beliefs about how much their peers typically study could be harming their exam performance in some surprising ways

GettyImages-882969886.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

A lot of us use what we consider normal behaviour – based on how we think most other people like us behave – to guide our own judgments and decisions. When these perceptions are wide of the mark (known as “pluralistic ignorance”), this can affect our behaviour in detrimental ways. The most famous example concerns students’ widespread overestimation of how much their peers drink alcohol, which influences them to drink more themselves.

Now a team led by Steven Buzinksi at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has investigated whether students’ pluralistic ignorance about how much time their peers spend studying for exams could be having a harmful influence on how much time they devote to study themselves. Reporting their findings in Teaching in Psychology, the team did indeed find evidence of pluralistic ignorance about study behaviour, but it seemed to have some effects directly opposite to what they expected.

Across four studies with hundreds of social psych undergrads, the researchers found that, overall, students tended to underestimate how much time their peers spent studying for an upcoming exam (but there was a spread of perceptions, with some students overestimating the average). Moreover, students’ perceptions of the social norm for studying were correlated with their own study time, suggesting – though not proving – that their decisions about how much to study were influenced by what they felt was normal.

However, when Buzinksi and his colleagues looked to see whether the students’ misconceptions about their peers’ study time were associated with their subsequent exam performance, they found the opposite pattern to what they expected.

The researchers had thought that underestimating typical study time would be associated with choosing to study less, and in turn that this would be associated with poorer exam performance. Instead, they found that it was those students who overestimated their peers’ study time who performed worse in the subsequent exam, and this seemed to be fully explained by their feeling unprepared for the exam (the researchers speculated that such feelings could increase anxiety and self-doubt, thus harming exam performance).

In a final study, one week before an exam, the researchers corrected students’ misconceptions about the average exam study time and this had the hoped-for effect of correcting pluralistic ignorance about normal study behaviour; it also removed any links between beliefs about typical study time and feelings of unpreparedness.

Most promisingly, average exam performance was superior after this intervention, as compared with performance in a similar exam earlier in the semester, suggesting that correcting misconceptions about others’ study behaviour is beneficial (perhaps learning the truth about how much their peers studied gave the students a chance to adjust their own study behaviour, and this may have boosted the confidence of those who would otherwise have overestimated average study time. However this wasn’t tested in the study so remains speculative).

Of course another explanation for the improved performance could just have been due to practice effects through the semester, but it’s notable that such an improvement in the late-semester exam was not observed in earlier years when the study-time-beliefs intervention was not applied.

Future research will be needed to confirm the robustness of these findings, including in more diverse student groups, and to test the casual role of beliefs about study time and feelings of preparedness, for example by directly observing how correcting misconceptions affects students’ study behaviour and their confidence.

For now, Buzinksi and his colleagues recommend it could be beneficial to use class discussions “…to correct potentially detrimental misperceptions”. They added: “Unless we as educators actively intervene, our students will approach their coursework from an understanding based upon flawed perceptions of the classroom norm, and those most at risk may suffer the most from their shared ignorance.”

Insidious Assumptions
How Pluralistic Ignorance of Studying Behavior Relates to Exam Performance

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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