The Placebo Effect and Education

How do you measure learning? What do you want a participant to walk away with after attending training? These are questions that educational researchers have been considering for a long time. Often when researchers want to see how effective some kind of educational intervention has been they will give students a test. It’s quantifiable and so easy to compare results before and after an intervention, or between an experimental group and a control group. Indeed tests are a favourite way to assess many things, from individual knowledge to the standard of whole country’s education system. While many dislike tests, and teaching solely to a test can hinder growth rather than encourage it, there’s no doubt that the ability to recall facts, rules and information is useful. Good tests even include problems that require candidates to apply what they know and show understanding. So is this the best way to assess progress?

A paper that I often like to refer to is Dunlosky et al.’s (2013)1 meta-analysis that compares ten of the most popular revision methods employed by students, and how effective they actually are. To give a sneak preview it seems that periodically testing yourself on material is a much better way to learn than reading your notes three or four times the day before an exam. However, if you were to ask how confident students felt after using the techniques then they would probably feel more comfortable after re-reading their notes. Their ability to recall data might be lower, but as testing yourself means you’ll make mistakes it’s easy for a student to feel like they haven’t learnt much, despite each wrong answer being a great learning opportunity that will stick in their head! On the other hand, when re-reading notes everything seems familiar and so a person’s confidence grows. The problem with this is that as everything seems familiar people don’t actually pay close attention. It seems obvious that this is a false confidence, and so the methods that actually improve recall ability are definitely better, right?

Recently I was reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science and came across the chapter on the placebo effect. In an experiment where patients with pain were given sugar pills and aspirin it was shown that the sugar pills had some effect, although not as much as the actually aspirin. Nothing too surprising there. What I found very interesting, however, was the fact that both the sugar pill and the aspirin were more effective if taken from a branded box than a plain black one. The mind has a powerful effect on the way our bodies work. In educational research there is a popular theory called Social Cognitive Theory, a collection of ideas popularised by a psychologist called Albert Bandura. The theory has many parts but one central portion is self-efficacy – a person’s confidence in their ability to successfully complete tasks. How people behave is directed linked to their beliefs about what the outcome of their actions is likely to be. This applies to educational contexts as well, if a person is confident that they will be able to learn, then they are more likely to learn. One of my favourite quotes on learning, from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, nicely sums up this idea:

We can say that Maud’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is so shocking to find out how many people do not believe that they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.

Your confidence in what you have learnt influences your emotions, which in turn influence how receptive you will be to learning. Self-efficacy is therefore not a placebo effect, the fertile mindset it creates for learning is genuine. If confidence is not considered then motivation can become a serious problem, and over an extended period of time learning can be hindered. What self-efficacy does share in common with the placebo effect is that the perceived value of your experience affects how effective outcomes are.

As an example of this in practice I’d like to offer my experiences learning Finnish. Our classes were excellent, designed for those living in Finland, who would often encounter situations where they don’t understand much around them while their language skills are still in a fledgling stage. The teachers employed a lot of good tactics for placing students into uncomfortable situations, trying to teach them the skills to survive and function. Nonetheless, this is not the way that many are used to studying a language. In schools grammar is normally given a central importance, and exercises start from basic sentences with perhaps only a couple of new words. When you have years to develop a language this is a fair way to approach its development, but it develops few strategies for those who need to have some competence almost immediately.

In my opinion people learnt a lot from the course. They could quickly survive in a restaurant conversation, or ask for directions. Perhaps most importantly strategies were developed to help students guess what is happening in situations where they don’t understand much. People’s opinions at the end of the course were, however, that they had learnt little. Most of the class exercises had placed them in situations where they had felt uncomfortable and therefore they felt they could not cope. Objective learning and perceptions did not align in a sense. After the course many people decided not to continue studying Finnish as it was too difficult. If the teachers had perhaps prepared people for this style of study, altering people’s expectations of what they should be able to do, then more might have continued studying, eventually attaining a high level of skill.

In a world where most knowledge is searchable on a mobile device, confidence at finding and applying knowledge becomes more important. Applying knowledge in unfamiliar situations is a disconcerting experience though, and so developing confidence simultaneously with competence will become increasingly more important in training.

1Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

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