Study: Tracking Confidence During Exams Leads to Better Revision Choices

People often say to “trust your first instincts” when making decisions. New research from Albright College tested the usefulness of this old adage by looking at student behavior during exams.

They found that more often than not, revisions—changes from a first instinct to a new choice—were more likely to result in a correct answer. And on the questions that caused the most uncertainty, sticking with one's initial instincts wasn’t a good idea: they were wrong more than half the time. But that doesn’t mean that all initial instincts were unreliable: the key to knowing when to revise was tracking one’s feelings about each question while taking the exam.

In the study, students rated how confident they were about each individual question. By using this simple form of metacognition – the ability to “think about thinking” or monitor and control thoughts and behaviors – students could better identify which questions to revise and which were better left alone.

The research also found that metacognition during the exam was a good predictor of exam performance.

"Students are, unfortunately, very bad at judging whether or not they did good or bad on an exam after the fact, but we found in our study that during the exam they’re spot-on,” says Justin J. Couchman, assistant professor of psychology at Albright College and lead author on the study. “Both revising and sticking with initial responses resulted in significantly more correct than incorrect answers when real-time metacognition was used. The self-tracking of students’ confidence levels predicted when each was most appropriate."

The researchers asked students to track their confidence on each answer on a multiple choice exam for a psychology class, marking it either a “guess” or “known” to indicate low or high confidence. They were also asked to record whether or not they revised their original answer. 

"The practice of tracking feelings while making decisions, on exams or when making general decisions, may improve self-regulation, help people make more informed choices, and better prepare people to revise a first instinct when necessary,” Couchman says.

The paper, titled “The Instinct Fallacy: The Metacognition of Answering and Revising” was published online in the journal Metacognition & Learning in May 2015. It was co-authored by Noelle E. Miller, also of Albright College, and Shaun J. Zmuda, Kathryn Feather and Tina Schwartzmeyer, of Fredonia State University. 

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Albright College
Assistant Professor of Psychology