5 Common Thinking Biases in Education

Did you know that our brains are a bit funky? On many occasions, our thought process is riddled with gremlins that stop us thinking rationally and logically. In fact, researchers have identified over one hundred of these cognitive biases that can subtly steer our decisions and thoughts.

Interestingly, certain biases tend to surface more frequently in education. In this blog, we'll unpack five of them:

  1. The Hawthorne Effect
  2. The Ikea Effect
  3. The Bandwagon Effect
  4. Confirmation Bias
  5. The Dunning-Kruger Effect

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  1. The Hawthorne Effect


The Hawthorne Effect is the phenomenon where individuals change or improve their behaviour in response to being observed. This term comes from a series of studies conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago. Researchers wanted to determine the effect of various factors such as lighting and rest periods on worker productivity. Surprisingly, they found that productivity increased regardless of the changes made. This led to the conclusion that the mere act of observing workers caused them to modify their behaviour and perform better.

This can have an impact on your students’ behaviour if they are undergoing an intervention to improve a particular area and are aware of it. But understanding the Hawthorne Effect is also essential when you're a teacher being observed. This effect suggests that you might unknowingly change your behaviour just because you know you're being watched. So, during classroom observations, you might find yourself teaching differently than you usually would, not because you want to, but because of this subconscious psychological response.

So how can you navigate this? Here are two strategies you can use to help manage the Hawthorne Effect during classroom observations:

  • Embrace authenticity – Keep in mind that the goal of an observation isn't to put on a show but to provide a genuine glimpse into your everyday teaching methods. Embrace your usual teaching style and resist the urge to do something extra or different.

  • Carry out mindful reflection – Reflect on your typical teaching practices and make a conscious effort to adhere to them during the observation. This self-awareness can help counteract any subconscious changes in behaviour due to being observed.

  1. The Ikea Effect

The IKEA effect is a psychological phenomenon where we place a higher value on items we have personally contributed to or created. It's named after the well-known Swedish furniture company, IKEA, which encourages customers to assemble their own furniture.

This bias is rooted in the sense of accomplishment and ownership derived from personal effort and time investment. In education, this phenomenon may occur when a teacher, having developed a new strategy or intervention, overestimates its effectiveness due to the invested effort, potentially leading to persistence with underperforming strategies.

Thankfully, there are ways you can keep this bias in check:

  • Reflect regularly Make a habit of stepping back and objectively assessing your strategies and interventions. The key is not to let the effort you've put into developing them cloud your judgement of their effectiveness.

  • Ask for feedback – It may be a good idea to get trusted colleagues’ thought on your teaching approach. They can give a fresh perspective that can help you see things you might have missed.

  1. The Bandwagon Effect

The Bandwagon Effect is when people change their beliefs or actions to match what the majority are doing. This comes from our human nature to want to fit in and be part of a group. For teachers, this might mean trying out a new teaching method or tool just because other teachers are using it, rather than thinking about whether it's the best fit for their own classroom.

Used wisely, this desire to follow the group can be a force for good. For example, a study showed that when hotel guests were told that others were reusing their towels, they were more likely to do the same, which helped save on laundry. You can use this same trick to encourage desirable behaviour in the classroom. But remember, don't fall in the trap of jumping onto every education trend without seeing solid evidence that it actually works.

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  1. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is the phenomenon that describes our tendency to pay more attention to things that agree with our existing beliefs and ignore things that don't. This bias can play a significant role in classrooms, leading to potential misjudgements about the effectiveness of teaching strategies or even your students’ performance.

For instance, let's say a teacher notices a student who is consistently quiet and reserved in class. They may assume that the student is disengaged or lacking in understanding, when in fact, the student may just feel uncomfortable speaking out loud.

It is therefore important for you to be aware of this bias so that you can avoid any misunderstandings and create a positive learning environment for your students. By building a fair and supportive classroom, you're helping your students grow to meet their full potential.


  1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes how unskilled people tend to overestimate their ability, when experts tend to doubt themselves. Researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger were inspired by the story of McArthur Wheeler, an inept bank robber who believed that covering his face in lemon juice would make him invisible to the CCTV cameras. When he was arrested, he was baffled as to why his plan didn’t work.

In Dunning & Kruger’s subsequent study on student grades, they found that the biggest gap between perceived ability and actual results were in students in the lowest percentile. This can limit student motivation – why would someone be determined to improve if they already believe they are better than they actually are?

Fortunately, you can tackle this effect by cultivating a culture that encourages students to regularly engage in self-reflection on their learning journey, while embracing the idea that everyone has the capacity to improve with dedicated effort. This will allow your students to develop a more accurate perception of their abilities and make progress towards reaching their goals.

Final Thoughts

Biases aren't just ideas stuck in psychology textbooks; they're part of your classrooms, shaping the way we teach and how your students learn. And if you believe you don’t hold any of these biases, it’s possible you suffer from the Bias Blind Spot, which does exactly what it says on the tin…

It is important to understand these biases and actively work towards reducing their effects. By doing so, you can enhance your teaching and create a more enriching learning experience for your students. Remember, the journey towards bias-free thinking isn't about perfection, but about continuous learning, reflection and improvement.

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The original version of this article was first published on The Guardian website on 31.03.17 You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch

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