Monday, July 8, 2013

Returning to "Cheating at Solitaire"

Could confidence be overrated?

Maybe.  I wrote back in October about the trouble that people face when they teach themselves something, as opposed to taking a formal course.  I used the expression "Cheating at Solitaire" to describe the phenomenon by which people can glaze over difficult information and just sort of tell themselves they know it (rather than face a contrary reality) or to look back at a diagnostic test they took and cleverly "re-interpret" the results.

Now that I've got a few months of experience under my belt as a GMAT tutor, I've had a chance to really see this up close.

I've seen students miss multiple math questions in a row, and either a) want to drill as deeply as they possibly can into the nuts and bolts of WHY they missed a particular problem; or b) just say to themselves "that's not really what I meant to put," or "that's just an easy one, let's not analyze it."  (Never mind the lay-up opportunity for the obvious retort, 'Well, if it was really so easy...')

In my role, I can give a slight nudge, or -- if the case merits it -- a strong push to try to snap someone out of this mentality.  Sometimes, though, the attempt is a bridge too far.

I'm not sure what causes this sort of cognitive dissonance, but it might be rooted in self-perception.  In other words, if you think of yourself as "a really good Math guy" you might not be willing to accept that your probability and combinatorics fundamentals aren't so hot.  If you could just shed that baggage, maybe you'd be willing to open up a bit, and come away with a higher score.

I'll come back to my comfort zone here with an NFL analogy.  Look at what Tom Brady does after he throws a pick.  He doesn't just deny that it happened.  He swears, he throws things, he sometimes even gets into shouting matches with coaches.  He doesn't want to do it again.  He'll watch hours of film to help reduce the likelihood that it will.

You could say he's a confident guy, or even that he's a cocky guy.  But that confidence is built on a very strong base.  Confidence in and of itself doesn't have that base.  Just saying 'I got it' over and over again isn't worth a half a percentage of what actually 'getting it' is worth.

As a teacher, I'd rather have a Tom Brady than a Ryan Leaf.  I'd rather have the guy (or girl) who gets the problem wrong, lets out a four-letter word or two, and says, "How do I fix this?"  

I've learned to worry, though, when I hear that "Cheating at Solitaire" style of cognitive dissonance coming through.  To the degree that I can, I'll fight it.  To the degree that I can nip it in the bud, I'll stomp it out early.  To the degree that it persists, though, I'll watch as someone spins his or her wheels towards a lukewarm result despite all the hours of preparation.  

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