Is Intuition the Enemy of Instruction? (Part 1)

Is Intuition the Enemy of Instruction? (Part 1)

By: Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein

The idea of relying on personal intuition versus expertise has long been debated in medicine. Thankfully, for the most part, expertise is winning the battle against myths such as the link between vaccines and autism: 91.9% of children 19-35 months old are up to date with their MMR vaccines in this country. (We said for the most part – unfortunately there are still a frightening number of parents who do not get their children vaccinated, and the vaccine rate in the US has gone down in the last couple of years. However, this is a problem for another blog, and those debates have been covered extensively elsewhere. For example, read this.)

When it comes to education, however, we seem to be much less inclined to turn to experts. In particular, there seems to be a huge distrust of any information that comes “from above.” Instead, there’s a preference for relying on our intuitions – be it teachers’, parents’, or students’ –  about what’s best for learning.

One source of this tendency is that virtually every one of us has years of experience as a student, which leads us to trust our own intuitions more than we should. By the age of 25, over 80% of Americans are high school graduates, which means a majority of Americans have at least 13 years of experience in education. Further, becoming a primary or secondary teacher requires a Bachelor’s degree; so, teachers are likely to have 17 years of experience as a student before entering a classroom, and we can hardly blame them for using this experience to inform their teaching practice.

Of course, experience as a student (and later, as a teacher) can be very valuable in building a teaching philosophy and practice. Unfortunately, however, our own intuitions as to how we learn, and how we should teach are not always correct. Moreover, the way we were taught in school may not be the best, or most efficient way to learn. And despite being seasoned students, our intuitions about how much we have learned on a topic can often be misleading, too.

There are two major problems that arise from reliance on intuition. The first is that our intuitions can lead us to pick the wrong learning strategies. Second, once we land on a learning strategy, we tend to seek out “evidence” that favors the strategy we have picked, while ignoring evidence that refutes our intuitions (i.e., confirmation bias – to be discussed  in part 2 of this blog post).

The first problem with intuition is evidenced by the frequent survey finding that college students tend to read their textbook and notes repeatedly as a learning strategy (1, 2, 3, 4). In fact, one survey (1) conducted at Washington University in St. Louis, a top University in the US, revealed that 55% of students utilize repeated reading as their number one study strategy. Yet research indicates that repeated reading does not lead to learning.

There are many studies (5, 6) comparing what happens when students read portions of a textbook once, to what happens when students read those same textbook sections twice. These experiments use a variety of different topics from textbooks, a variety of different types of learning assessments, and various delays from when the students read to when learning is assessed. Results from these studies overwhelmingly show that reading the textbook twice takes extra time, but does not improve learning at all.

But rereading feels good. The more we read a passage, the more fluently we are able to read it, even though we’re not really engaging with the information on a deep level, let alone learning it. This feeling of fluency is seductive, and encourages the student to continue to engage in this useless strategy. If we trust our intuitions and repeatedly read – as many college students seem to – we will spend time engaging in a learning strategy that simply does not work.

The finding that repeated reading does not improve learning may be surprising to you. Many of us have had the experience of reading something twice, and feeling that we are “getting more out of it” the second time. Yet our predictions about how much we are learning are not accurate. When college students are asked to predict how much they think they are learning from repeated reading, many are extremely overconfident (7). Yet predictions made after engaging in more effective strategies – like answering practice questions or writing down everything you know about a topic – tend to be too low.

Roediger and Karpicke (7) provide a striking example. Students either read a small section from a textbook four times, or they read the same section once and then tried to write down everything they could remember three times. (This writing strategy is called retrieval practice, and our student blogger Rachel describes how she uses it here!) The students were then asked to predict how much they had learned on a 7-point scale. They should have said 1 if they thought they had hardly learned anything, and 7 if they thought they had learned it all.

Most students thought that writing everything they could remember did not help them learn as much as reading and re-reading.

Then, one week later, the students took a learning assessment where they again had to write down everything they could remember, and got points for every piece of correct information that they wrote down. Students who had practiced writing everything they knew in the first session could remember more information a week later than students that had read and re-read the text. Compare this performance to the predictions students made, and you will see a virtually mirror-like effect between predicted learning and actual learning. In other words, students’ intuitions led them to make faulty predictions about their learning.

As college professors, we have seen this illusion baffle students. Occasionally students will come to see one of us in our offices – usually the students who often miss class and have not heard the spiel on effective learning strategies – and say they are unhappy with their performance in the class, and that they thought they aced a recent exam on which they actually scored quite poorly. We ask them how they prepared for the exam, and they almost always tell us they “read the textbook and looked over all the notes.” They also often add that they “spent tons of time studying.” At this point, we sit them down and remind them (or tell them for the first time, if they missed it) about the testing effect, and ask them to try it out. This is often met with much resistance – retrieval practice isn’t easy – but those who do try it are usually pleased with the results.

It’s all well and good for us to encourage the use of good study strategies amongst our students, but this way we can only help a tiny fraction of students. In an attempt to reach out to more students, we started this blog, and we’ve also been reaching out to students on social media. You may be surprised at the number of students struggling with studying at any given moment. Try it for yourselves: type “how to study” into the Twitter search. We just did – here’s the most recent post, 7 minutes ago as we type this:

We’ve been reaching out to these students and giving them gentle pointers on how they might study more efficiently. Sometimes students don’t respond, but when they do, the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.

To be continued – in part 2, we cover the dangers of confirmation bias.


(1) Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.

(2) Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 126-134.

(3) Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 219-224.

(4) Carrier, L. M. (2003). College students’ choices of study strategies. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 96, 54-56.

(5) Callendar, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34, 30-41.

(6) Phillips, N., Mills, C. D’Mello, S. K., & Risko, E. On the influence of re-reading on mind wandering (in press). Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

(7) Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.