How Confirmation Bias Creates Challenges In eLearning

Ellen DeGeneres said, “Be open to learning new lessons, even if they contradict the lessons you learned yesterday.”

What if we assumed that students approach every course they take with prejudices that may affect their academic success? What can educators do to break through that “confirmation bias” to help students learn more effectively?

Assistant Professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College defines confirmation bias as “accepting information that reinforces a predisposition, belief or attitude.” I would expand that definition even further to describe confirmation bias as “an irrational prejudice in favor of preconceptions that we prefer to believe, even when they are incorrect.” Nyhan also points out that the reverse side of this is “disconfirmation bias—people tend to be unduly skeptical of information that contradicts some previous position they have, or point of view.”

It’s a common human failing to disregard facts and adhere to the information that reinforces what we already believe. People have sentimental, religious, political, ideological and psychosocial reasons for doing this, and our role as educators is not to judge this predisposition, but acknowledge it and be aware of how it can affect the students we’re teaching.

Here are 3 ways confirmation bias can impact eLearning, along with an approach that can help educators mitigate the effects of it. Educators can take these into consideration to help ensure their students have fewer impediments to learning.

1. Students May Presume That They Have An Exclusive Learning Style

While not an actual example of confirmation bias, this illustrates how educational folklore with no basis in formal research can create psychological barriers to learning. Many students have heard or been taught that each person has their own style of learning that helps them learn better. For example, some people will insist they are “visual learners” and then use that folklore to rationalize why they are having trouble learning from textbooks or audio.

In fact, recent research has shown us that many people have learning preferences that they choose because they enjoy a particular type of learning media, such as text, audio or video, but their preferences don’t mean that they are incapable of learning in other formats as well. It may only mean that they enjoy one learning style the most and will be more motivated if that learning style is presented. For educators, there is no pedagogical need to assess learning styles, but they can consider providing more options on eLearning platforms to enrich the learning experience. To find out more about this research, read “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in the December 2008 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

2. If It’s An Instructor-Led Course, Students May Display Confirmation Bias Toward The Course Content Based On What They Know Or Think They Know About The Instructor(s)

In an eLearning course facilitated by an instructor(s), students are usually provided with an instructor’s bio and background. Of course, they’re not limited to that—students often Google their instructor’s name(s) to find out more about them. While studies have been conducted about instructors showing race and gender biases toward their students, student biases toward their instructor and/or the course designers can often impact the learning experience, even in the case of an online course.

Students who have racial or gender biases toward their instructor(s) or who disagree with the political, philosophical or religious beliefs their instructors seem to espouse, may become resistant to learning or even withdraw from a course on that basis, even if the course content itself is not an issue. Conversely, student confirmation bias may lead them to only seek out courses and instructors that seem to support their preconceived beliefs rather than attempting courses that may challenge their beliefs or expand their knowledge.

3. Students May Have Preconceived Ideas About The Course Content

Confirmation bias can negatively impact the way students perceive their course content. If they are strongly biased against some or all of the course content for personal, political, religious or ideological reasons, or simply because they were previously misinformed about the topic, they may consciously or subconsciously resist learning from the course. Or they may decide not to take the course or drop the course partway through.

While there’s value in aligning our educational goals with our core values, the drive to market and monetize eLearning may lead some students (or companies seeking courses for their employees) to over-consume bespoke eLearning courses—an education buffet that allows students to select the information they want to learn. However, if they self-select learning content based on their confirmation biases, they may not benefit from more balanced and comprehensive learning that has been designed by educators.

How Educators And Educational Content Developers Can Mitigate Confirmation Bias

Everyone brings their biases into their lifelong activities and experiences, including their education. The exercise for both educators and students is to become more self-aware and transparent about those biases so that we can declare them (even if only to ourselves) and ensure we are open to learning ideas that challenge our way of thinking rather than allowing our confirmation bias to “cherrypick” what we learn, thereby limiting the scope of our knowledge.

As an educator or as a creator of eLearning content, it may be important to consider the demographics of your students and be transparent about any biases your educational content may present, but also be willing to:

  1. Challenge students in the course outline or introduction to be aware of their own biases for or against the content.
  2. Engage in dialogues with students throughout the course and help them identify where their biases may be creating a resistance to learning or even leading them to abandon or withdraw from a course simply because they can’t reconcile their preconceived ideas with what they are learning.

There’s no value judgment in this approach—the goal is to foster open-minded learning with critical thinking skills that allow students to gain the greatest value possible from their learning experiences.

Originally published by eLearningIndustry.com