The invisible gorilla: getting students to read essay titles.

Date: 21.06.2012

Patrick Mulrenan writes:

As lecturers we know that one of the most common reasons for failing essays is that the student did not read the question. But this is a puzzle- we set out the question in the handbooks and we carefully take them through the question and the marking criteria. And students really want to pass the assignment. So what’s going wrong?

Daniel Khaneman may have the answer. In his best selling book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, he argues that we all have two thinking systems- system one and system two. System one is on all the time, and allows us to glide through life on automatic. It monitors the world round us, and is equipped to deal with simple and known issues- for example with answering the question 2×2=. It is also able to deal with quite complex techniques, as long as we have practised them many times. So for example, it is easy to drive without thinking- like me, you have been driving the car and suddenly realised that you are mistakenly going the usual route you take, rather than the actual route you want to take today.

System two cuts in when you need to focus- for example, if you are driving for the first few times, or trying to answer the question 13×27=. But when you do focus, you can only do so on one thing. He cites the video by Christopher Chabris and David Simons. Try it on your friends. It involves trying to count the number of times a basketball is passed by people dressed in white shirts as they weave in and out of people with black shirts. Surprisingly, half the people who do this don’t notice that a man dressed as a gorilla passes through the group and waves. It’s called the ‘illusion of attention’.

So maybe that’s the answer. We think students are paying attention, but perhaps they are working on system one, or perhaps they are focusing on something else. The actual meaning of the essay is like the gorilla in the room- it’s big, and it’s waving at them but they just don’t notice.

Patrick Mulrenan, course leader MA Housing and Inclusion, FdA Community Work