Cognitive Biases and Critical Thinking

While pinballing through clickbait in the morono-sphere the last night, (Yes I should have been asleep) I came across this article on I09.

It got me thinking about the “C-word” that keeps cropping up in academic grade descriptors. “Critical” (ok sometimes it’s “critically”) and how many of the above mentioned cognitive biases could work even more forcefully across a language/culture divide to get in the way of the much needed critical thinking. (Ok, you only ‘need’ it in first year if you want good marks.)

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1 Confirmation Bias: this means preferring views and opinions that tell you you’ve been right all along. How can it hurt you academically? It helps you to discount and/or ignore opinions that should be included (even if you still disagree with them). Most grade descriptors say something like ‘acknowledges relevant controversy’; well if you ignore the controversy you’re unlikely to acknowledge it. When you see poor academic phrasing like “It is a widely acknowledged fact/everybody knows/this paper proves” etc. this is appealing to your conformation bias to not think critically.

2 In Group Bias: As IO9 states this works similarly to 1 basically me and my friends are right. How can it hurt you academically? Again, this is not paying sufficient attention, (AKA devoting sufficient word count) to ideas and positions that you don’t like because they aren’t what you and your friends think.

3 Gambler’s Fallacy: this is the “better luck next time” or “this test will be easier than the last one”. Academically, this is when people don’t pick up and go through work that they’ve got back to understand how they can improve it, especially if it didn’t get a very good mark. Yes this happens. Anecdotally, one department administrator puts the number between 5-10%. It’s also when they assume tests will get easier.

4 Post-purchase rationalisation: when you make yourself feel better after a bad decision. Academically, this could be the student who sat in my 9AM lecture every week, looking green and wafting vodka fumes. They got through week 1 with a hangover so obviously they can get through them all that way. It could also be ignoring advice and feedback about assignments and blaming your poor marks on those assignments on ‘hard marking’ or ‘tricky questions’.

5 Neglecting Probability: Have you ever thought: “The next test must be easier”; / “It’s multiple choice the answer can’t be A: three times running”; probability doesn’t take it personally, neither should you.

6 Observational Selection Bias: At Grad level, the academic impact here is when you suddenly notice lots of people doing similar work to you. Don’t worry, your supervisors wouldn’t let you start something completely pointless, but you might want to hurry up and publish, before your work does become redundant. For undergrads, don’t suddenly discover something that is “OMG! the answer-to-everything”. Yes read widely, yes follow sources and learn but don’t assume that the thing you’ve just figured out is the one and only answer.

7 Status Quo Bias: We like things to be stable, but in your academic life you need to change and develop, (often more or less continuously). A paper from first year that does well might scrape through in second year, and fail in third etc.

8 Negativity Bias: As Jorge Cham teaches us grad students often find it easy to get discouraged, I wonder how much the negativity bias is at work here. Noticing things which are bad for your research position or work can actually be good, just work to refine the model rather than giving up.

9 Bandwagon Effect: There are fashions and trends in academic life, just like any field. Some of the most successful people in all fields of life have ignored the bandwagon effect, left the safe job to work for themselves etc. Academically, don’t be afraid to stand out, just make sure you can support your position whether you are standing out from the crowd or hiding in the middle of it.

10 Projection Bias: It’s impossible, or at least very difficult for you to read your own writing the way someone else would read it. We’ve got advice on this here. This can be a big one, and hard to address. Academically, you need to read your own work critically, (there’s that c-word again).

11 Current Moment Bias: You know this. It’s that moment when you should go to the library but decide to go for pizza instead. Individually that half hour doesn’t matter much. But, when you then go to play football with friends, (because how many nice days are there left this year) it can get dangerous. Many students find that they don’t do as well as they hoped because they underestimated the amount of research that goes into a good paper. A good paper is much like making a film (or a movie for any Americans). 60% preparation (research and reading) 20 % shooting (writing) 20 % editing (editing) Putting off that research hurts the first stage and very few good films were ever made by heading out with a camera crew and no plan… no matter what the director wants you to think.

12 Anchoring Effect: That tendency to try for middle ground. Last year I asked my first year class “who wants a first” nobody put up their hand “who would like a 2.1” half the class or more raised their hands. The problem is when you are aiming for good enough (as opposed to good) you might not get there all the time.

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Speed Reading

Following a recent workshop on speed-reading I was asked for some notes on it.

Here they are.

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One of the key skills that will enable you to excel in your studies at the University of Winchester is being able to read and process information effectively. Understanding and using speed reading techniques effectively and appropriately can help you develop your work.

Firstly, always read tactically. There is normally an introduction or an abstract at the beginning of the article or chapter, reading this first will help you judge whether or not there is anything to be gained by reading the rest. Extend this to reading the first and last sentence of paragraphs, these will normally tell you what the themes in the paragraph were. If it’s relevant to your work read it all if not keep going. Think also about when and where you are reading. For some of us a train or a bus journey may be a brilliant time to catch up with some reading, others will need space and peace to read well. Lastly, nobody reads well while they are exhausted, hungry or otherwise distracted. Remember also the importance of taking regular short breaks when studying. Much of the mind’s learning is done when it isn’t actively studying.

The biomechanics of reading:

Recent studies of how the eye moves when we are reading show us that very few people read in clear lines. Most adult readers in English read in clusters of 4-7 words at a time. Not necessarily linearly or even on the same line. There’s some suggestion that readers may even skip entire lines when reading, all without losing their understanding. Many of the reading techniques here exploit this information and some will work better than others for different purposes and people. To find the ones that work best for you, experiment and practice with them.

Guide methods:

Guide methods work because many readers’ eyes jump around the page while they are reading, especially attracted to bold, italic or CAPITALISED text, and images. Since this will slow down the process of your reading the guides aim to focus your attention and keep they eye moving but in a more efficient manner. In general guide methods work fairly well to give you a slight increase in speed without sacrificing memory retention or depth of understanding. So they are ideal once you have found good sources, or the sections of a text that are most important or useful for you. Once you’ve practiced guide methods for a while you may even read a little faster without using them.

The Point Guide: use a pointer (such as a pen or pencil or even your finger) move the tip along under the text you are reading at that moment. Try to move the point slightly faster than you would normally read to ‘drag’ your eye along the page. If you are using a pen or pencil (and it isn’t a library book) you can quickly and easily mark something that you want to return to or use later.

The Blind Guide: using a blank piece of paper to ‘hide’ parts of the text that you aren’t interested in to stop your eye jumping about. Similar to the point guide move the paper down the page a little faster than you would normally read. Many people find that this distracts them less than the point guide, and gives them a place to make notes if it is a library book. A related technique involves using a clear but coloured plastic sheet to alter the contrast between the page and the text. Pale blue and yellow seem most popular, as with other things play around with it and see what works best for you.

The Loophole or Frame Guide: The loophole guide uses a piece of paper with a small rectangular hole to completely hide any other distracting parts of the page. It needs to be big enough to see a couple of lines of text at once. The frame guide can be quite a bit bigger but still masks most of the page. These methods are a little bit trickier to get the hang of than the first two but if you are a more distractible reader then it might be worth it for you.

The Skimming Point Guide: Using a point to ‘coast’ or ‘skim’ down the page. This is typically the guide method that people can get through a text fastest with, however both understanding and recall may suffer as a result so is perhaps best used to skim through a text in search of areas that need more attention. As with all texts/methods you may want to vary the speed depending on what and why you are reading.

Glossing Methods:

Glossing can be useful when you are trying to quickly get a general idea about what you are reading and you are not worried about/interested in the fine details, or to get through a piece quickly to see if it is worth reading in more depth. Glossing relies on your brain’s natural attraction to the content (rather than the grammatical minutia) of what you are reading. These techniques take a little bit more practice to get right but can be very powerful once you’ve mastered them.

Diagonal line gloss/guide: This one works best with column formatted text, like newspapers, where the paragraphs are square-ish. It will probably work fairly well in a journal/periodical using columns but may not work so well in your textbooks which typically use columns less commonly. Draw an imaginary line through the paragraph from top left to bottom right. Read all the words that you cut through or touch (or go near). This can let you quickly grasp some of the detail and the main idea of the paragraph without having to read the whole thing.

Lexical Glossing or Skipping: This method relies on the fact that the vast majority of small or short words carry little or no actual meaning and ignoring them will rarely if ever affect your understanding of the text in any significant way. Simply, (ha ha) ignore any word that is three or fewer letters long. Observe:

This method relies fact that vast majority small short words carry little actual meaning ignoring them will rarely ever affect your understanding text significant.

The same sentence goes from 38 words to 24 and while it might not sound quite right it still conveys the same meaning.

Back Scanning: For most readers 10% of the time they spend reading is spent finding the beginning of the next line. Back scanning suggests that you can save this time by reading every other line in the reverse direction. Yes, backwards. Remember that your brain will correct the grammar (more or less) and using these methods we’re only really interested in the general idea.

Cloud Glossing: This one takes some serious practice, but when you see someone skipping through things in a film, a page every couple of seconds or so. This is supposedly what they are doing. Look once briefly at the centre of each paragraph, just for a second or two. Then move to the next one. Get this right and you can power through books, but nobody actually remembers all the details if they don’t read them. Use this technique to find the passages that you are interested in. If you wear glasses this might be easier without them on.

Space Hopping: For this glossing technique you read the space between two lines. (N.B. this is the opposite of what people normally mean with “read between the lines”) the idea here is to quickly get a gist by not reading each and every line but to read two lines at a time and gloss the general content of a paragraph. This can be combined with Back Scanning to read even faster.

Hand it in… yet?

Well I know a large number of the PG students here at Winchester just have. You know who you are and I’ve talked to several of you over the last couple of weeks.

Handing in something upwards of 30,000 words, a sizeable chunk of thinking, not to mention reading, and writing can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster.

It’s a rare occasion that this is happening only to you, there’s often a kind of giddy atmosphere, possibly partially fuelled by lack of sleep and energy drinks, around faculty offices when the big hand in dates roll round. Nearby hostelries will often overflow with revelry, and celebrations are definitely in order.

Personally I’m a chronic over-writer I’ll have cut at least one word for every word I hand in. (Ok I may have squeezed 1 in 20 of those cut into an appendix somewhere). I always feel a little upset by what I haven’t handed in, even when I know I cut it for a perfectly good reason, possibly several perfectly good reasons.

There is also the elation of having got it in. You’re done. It’s finished. This is something you’ll see in people faces a smile that lights up the whole face. Enjoy and savour this unless you are a serial grad student, (and even if I’m told the ecstatic delight wears off faster and is less intense) you won’t get this feeling all that often. All your hard work is done and it has been written up and handed in. If you remember that concept of free time, you now have some again.

photo credit: Domiriel via photopin cc

photo credit: Domiriel via photopin cc

There is of course a double edged sword here. “What on earth do you do with all that free time?” It is all too easy after hand in deadlines have been met to feel a little deflated and flat. If you’ve dropped out of touch with friends and family, call them up, get back in touch and meet up so they can congratulate you. If you’ve not gone running, to the gym, etc. as often as you’d like get back in the habit. Catch up with all those little things that should happen from time to time, dentist appointments, getting your eyes checked, renewing your passport/insurance etc. ad nauseam, or at least check that all this stuff is up to date, it’s not fun but get it done before life takes off again. Of course many of you will be polishing up that CV and sending in out, with carefully considered cover letters. I wish you good luck with it. Job hunting is neither fun nor easy, the economy at present can’t help.

Some of you probably have the next project lined up, or starting already. Well done, good planning this kind of thing can really buoy you up in occasionally difficult times. Allow yourself a moment of smug satisfaction, just one, and get back to work. Remember you have things to do and can’t rest on your laurels unlike some.

Stay busy, but not too busy. Stay safe, but not too safe.