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Hindsight bias: Psychology instructor, heal thyself

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More than one Intro Psych textbook opens with this warning to students: Beware the hindsight bias! And students should beware, of course. Once the findings of a research study are revealed, it is hard for students to turn back the clock to the time when they did not know the results. With the results known, they are likely to label them as obvious; they knew them all along.

Steven Pinker (2016) urges us, as instructors, to remember that we, too, fall victim to hindsight bias, the curse of knowledge. We have spent years talking about these Intro Psych concepts. Because we have a difficult time imagining what it was like to not know these concepts, we may rush through our lectures, thinking our students either already know the concepts or can grasp them with quick, concise explanations.

How can we, as instructors, keep hindsight bias at bay in the classroom? Pinker says “[t]he best antidote is feedback: Asking students questions; monitoring their reactions, soliciting commentary; querying knowledge through regular assessments.”

On the first day of class, as I am explaining the structure of the course, I will explain to my students what the hindsight bias is, how I can’t remember what it was like to not know the content of this course, and how I have built a course designed to keep me informed of what they, the students, are understanding and what they are not as we go, before we get to the high stakes exams. And that I am going to trust them to tell me when they are not following what I am saying.

What better way to help students understand a concept like hindsight bias than to immediately use it to explain a common instructor behavior? With the added bonus of showing students how psychology can be used to teach psychology!

Pinker, S. (2016, January 3). The sense of style: Writing and teaching in the 21st century. Address presented at National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology in Tradewinds Island Grand Resort, St. Petersburg Beach.

[Pinker’s book by the same title has an entire chapter devoted just to hindsight bias if you would like to read more.]

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.