How Confirmation Bias Creates Challenges in Teaching

Challenges in education exist in abundance. From funding to battling a pandemic, many outside factors inhibit quality learning that teachers and students must learn to work through. However, some challenges are within an educator’s sphere of influence. Consider the learning outcome of a student who considered themselves “bad at math” throughout their entire secondary education career. With such a preconceived notion, it’s not likely that this student will have automatic success in their next post-secondary math course. Confirmation bias will keep this student exactly where they expected to be at the end of the course. That is unless this challenge is identified and addressed by the educator.

What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to only interpret and internalize information that supports or aligns with your preconceived beliefs. This method of processing information is not intentional but is a human survival adaptation. Humans do not have the time or energy to spend thinking critically through every decision and situation, so the brain sorts information into pre-existing categories. It is especially challenging for humans to remain unbiased on topics to which they have an emotional connection. You will easily, yet unintentionally, ignore or forget information that does not align with or is inconsistent with your beliefs while assigning importance to information that supports your beliefs. 

How Confirmation Bias Affects the Learning Environment

It is likely impossible to catch every instance of confirmation bias in your life; however, as an educator, it will be worth it to examine the impacts in education and in your own teaching. Confirmation bias can lead to a stagnant learning environment, one in which new learning is halted. If we are only looking at information that confirms our existing beliefs, objective thinking will be hard to practice. 

Confirmation bias generally follows the pattern of:

  1. Developing or holding a certain belief 
  2. Retaining new information that supports that belief while ignoring or forgetting contradictory information 
  3. Reaffirming our existing belief 

There is little room for critical thinking in this pattern. Confirmation bias takes away the opportunity for a true evaluative process. In a healthy learning environment, you and your students should be able to accept new ideas and perspectives by constantly reevaluating data and information. Confirmation bias will limit the productivity and purpose of course material and hold students back from their full learning potential. 

How to Identify Confirmation Bias in Your Course

Because confirmation bias is inherent in human psychology, it is important to check for and identify confirmation bias in your own course and even in your own personal beliefs. Serving your students in this way will strengthen the quality and validity of your course and will provide your students with more opportunities for growth and higher-level thinking. 

Test the Hypotheses in Your Course

New information, theory, and research can be presented at any time in any subject, but especially for the rapidly evolving health sciences. Deliberately research information that is contradictory to your teaching. Can the information that you find be factually supported, even if it does not align with everything in your course? Fall back on the scientific method to explore holes and opportunities for course updates. Maybe your course content just needs to be presented in a different manner, or maybe entirely new information needs to be included to address multiple perspectives. 

Listen for Repetition 

Perform an audit of your course and be critical of repetitive information. Question the purpose and usage of this repetition. Sometimes information is presented over and over again for emphasis, which is not in itself a problem. However, this may have the unintended effect of assigning greater importance, validity, and truth to certain statements that do not actually warrant higher status than other information. With proper teaching, your students will be able to identify important information through analytical thinking on their own part, without you deliberately overstating its importance. 

Examine Generalizations in Your Teaching 

In addition to monitoring your course, catch your own personal biases by listening for generalizations in your teaching. When teaching a tough unit in particular, have you ever heard yourself say that your students “just don’t get it?” It might be time to examine what has happened in the past. Maybe your students really are struggling, but because you are expecting them to struggle, you are only clinging to the confirming evidence. You see struggling students and feel helpless and like this is a static and unchanging pattern. By allowing this cycle to continue, you are releasing ownership of your students’ success. Take it back by reevaluating your assumptions and trying a different approach to the unit. 

How to Identify Confirmation Bias in Your Student

Students come to class, both virtually and in person, with their own biases about themselves and the world around them. Confirmation bias can limit a student’s ability to learn new information, especially when it challenges their existing beliefs. Students’ opinions of themselves may keep them from making strides in subjects that have not been their favorite in the past. 

Listen to Student Interpretations 

Listen to how your students may be interpreting the same information differently. Though there is room for a variety of interpretations in academic study, these differences could also enlighten you on your students’ preconceived notions. Are your students able to understand a variety of interpretations, or are they resisting any idea but their own? This will allow you as an educator to help your students suspend their assumptions and look at information from a more objective viewpoint. Provide your students with a thought exercise. Instead of asking them to immediately alter their own belief systems, ask them to start with “what if.” “What if” it was possible that something could be different? 

Monitor Student Emotions 

Humans cling very tightly to views on religion, society, and politics, especially when these views are seen as part of one’s identity. Information that contradicts these views can be the hardest for your students to accept. Watch for an emotional response to new information presented in class, during a group discussion, or while having an academic debate. Reassure your students that their personal beliefs need not change, even if they must be challenged for the sake of academic discussion. Again, you can ask your students to temporarily consider “what if” in order to help them separate from their existing beliefs. 

Watch For The “Learning Style” Excuse 

During their primary and secondary school years, students may have taken a “learning style” quiz. This is an assessment that questions students on some of their likes and preferences and then assigns them a learning style, a style or setting in which they learn best. While it’s true that people respond differently to a variety of educational settings, just because someone is deemed a “kinesthetic learner” does not mean that they are incapable of visual or auditory learning. It is likely not the intention of the quiz creators or the teachers that assign this kind of quiz to create a fixed mindset in their students, but the quiz may have this effect. If a student is labeled a kinesthetic learner and is then enrolled in a course that is largely text-based, they may struggle in the course because of their belief that they cannot learn in the way that the information is presented.  

Other Ways Confirmation Bias Makes it to the Classroom

Confirmation bias can exist in the classroom through a student’s view of themselves and what they believe they are capable of. It can also be present in a student’s opinion about how they connect with certain contents and course material as well as information that has been shared concerning instructors. 

Preconceived Bias About the Course Material 

As previously mentioned, it may be especially challenging for a student to learn and succeed in a course that contradicts their ideological views. Students may hold preconceived notions about a course’s content because of these ideological reasons or because they have been simply misinformed on the content narrative. Students may end up selecting courses that align with their beliefs, which is okay to some extent. However, selecting courses based on personal beliefs could lead to a continuation of confirmation bias as students are not exposed to challenging or contradictory information. 

Students often have ideas about subjects at which they are good and subjects at which they are bad. Because of confirmation bias, a student will remember any failed exams from their science courses, but won’t remember the ‘A’ that they earned in environmental science or that time that they didn’t pass a British Literature quiz. These selected memories may serve to lower the student’s self-esteem and prepare them to fail their next science course.  

Preconceived Bias About the Professor 

For virtual courses, a personal bio of the instructor will likely be accompanied by the course description. If students are selecting an in-person course, they can search through websites that rate professors on a variety of scales from any institution. These websites act like databases, sharing anything from overall averages in a professor’s courses to reviews written by former students. 

Sometimes the impact of this available information is felt before a student signs on to or steps foot into a classroom. Students may choose to avoid a certain course altogether because of the information they have found about the professor. If a student does enroll in a course taught by an instructor they have researched, they may be subconsciously waiting for the instructor to do or say something that they read about in a review, stockpiling more examples to add to the rating website at the end of the semester. 

It is important to note that conscious and unconscious racial and gender biases can absolutely affect a student’s opinion of a professor. Confirmation bias promotes and strengthens stereotypes, including those on race and gender. 

How to Challenge Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias probably can’t be avoided in its entirety, but there are ways you can challenge it in your virtual or physical classroom that will hopefully lessen the negative impact on your course. You can address confirmation bias in your own teaching methods as well as in the building and structure of your course. 

Challenge Confirmation Bias in Your Teaching Method 

One way to provide an upfront challenge to confirmation bias is to call it out at the very beginning of your course. Name it and define it for your students so they can become aware of the potential biases they may be bringing into the classroom. It may be helpful to run a quick exercise in which you ask students to identify an example of one of their own biases, maybe in regard to something non-triggering like food or colors. Naming one of your own biases aloud may help your students feel more comfortable even admitting that they have biases in the first place, as this word has a very negative and shameful connotation. 

Become comfortable with calling out yourself and your students during class discussions. If you detect confirmation bias in an argument, ask questions like, “What evidence do you have to support that claim?” and “Can you try to consider any evidence that might refute that claim?” Class discussions provide great opportunities for real-time analysis and rewiring of biases. Be careful to remain considerate and respectful of your students, and emphasize that you are only trying to create a learning environment that is open to growth and critical thinking. 

Challenge Confirmation Bias in Your Course Outline 

Build coursework that inherently challenges bias on the subject or topic. By researching biases that exist pertaining to the content of your course, you will be better armed to teach about and challenge those biases. The more preparation you put into defining the biases in your content, the more empirical your coursework will become. Not only will you be providing a quality education to your students, but you will also be modeling for your students how to be mindful of and work proactively against confirmation bias, a skill that will serve your students far beyond the confines and timeline of your course. 

Hopefully, most students will have received a lesson on how to identify quality, reliable sources by the time they reach their post-secondary education. However, any student could always use more practice, especially in an age in which “news” headlines become viral on social media and are sometimes used in place of fully researched articles. Include a unit early in your course in which you teach how to locate empirical evidence and use it. 

As an illustrative activity, find a news heading and assign groups of students different “actors” from this story. Have students research the views, context, and opinions of these actors. Bring the class back together and have the different groups present their findings. It should become apparent to your students that no one view is inherently wrong. This will also serve as an example for your students of how you can come by new information with your own pre-existing opinions intact (coming to the discussion with one side of the story researched) and still take in and interpret potentially contradictory information.

Final Thoughts on Confirmation Bias and Education

In an age of information where evidence, empirical or not, can be found instantly to support any claim, it is increasingly important to be aware of and teach about confirmation bias. Including an opportunity to explore biases in the health sciences, in particular, will only serve to promote quality research and fair information. 

Open Thinking 

Education may not be exempt from the polarization that much of western society has experienced lately. Open thinking, being open and receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources, is critical to maintaining integrity in education and preventing education as a system from falling prey to confirmation bias and becoming an entrenched and dogmatic institution. Staying open-minded and creative will hold the systems in education accountable to their purpose. 

Non-Value Judgement 

Value judgments are claims made about something’s worth, generally something’s moral worth. Value judgments go beyond description and assign attitudes and opinions to the item in question. Value judgments should be kept to a minimum in education since values, morals, and opinions are fluid. Non-value judgments are descriptive and generally based on observation and fact. Evaluating whether or not certain information is a value judgment is another technique that could be helpful in catching confirmation bias in education. 

Confirmation bias can create challenges in traditional and online learning environments. However, by understanding and identifying how this issue can show up in your students, in your course, and in your own beliefs, you can take steps to teach without bias and to teach your students how to look at material from their own experience or knowledge without confirmation bias. Institutions that wish to provide a quality learning experience for their students can receive help by choosing an educational content provider like Caduceus International Publishing (CIP). CIP offers exceptional virtual learning content and courses on a functional and reliable learning platform. A free trial is available today. 

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