Neuroscience and the Classroom
The Surprising Feature of Predictions
Guess what number will turn up if I roll one die.
Predict what number will turn up if I roll a pair of die.
While the difference appears subtle, it produces significant effects.
When you guess what number will appear when I roll a single die, the odds are one in six for each number: 16.67%. No amount of knowledge improves your guess. The answer remains unpredictable; hence, no investment in the outcome. (In case you’re wondering, I rolled a four.)
When you predict what number will turn up if I roll a pair of dice, the odds for each number vary. If you don’t know combination probabilities, then you are guessing. No investment. If you know the combination probabilities, you will predict 7 because your knowledge gives you an edge. (The number 7 has more combinations than any other number: 1–6, 2–5, 3–4, 4–3, 5–2, 6–1. Numbers 2 and 12 have only one combination each: 1–1 and 6–6. Other numbers range between these.) Thinking about your prediction — cognitive elaboration — vested you in the outcome.
Guesses don’t elicit confidence, so wrong answers don’t invest you. Think of guesses as passive, wait and see. Predictions invest conviction because they require mindful calculating. They engage us. This higher level of confidence distinguishes prediction from guessing. Neuroscience research by Garvin Brod and Maria Theobald at the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education shows how incorrect predictions may trigger surprise. Surprises activate enhanced attention and motivation. Then learning soars. The difference between guessing and predicting is literally a surprise.
Predictions Elicit Curiosity
Curiosity boosts motivation, increases attention, and improves memory encoding. If you don’t believe me, tell your students that you’ll roll the dice tomorrow and listen to their groans. They want to know. That’s dopamine at work, our motivator neurotransmitter. With curiosity aroused, it doesn’t matter what number now appears. A rolled 7 incites a sense of satisfaction. But what if a 9 turns up, is it game over with a corresponding plunge in motivation? Nope. If it’s not a 7, we experience a slight surprise. Surprise triggers a surge of dopamine, telling you to pay close attention and learn. We instinctively like to see our predictions confirmed. Listen to the chorus, “Do it again.”
By the way, I rolled the dice and got a 9? What are the odds? Yes, you can easily calculate them. Interest rises as students want to learn how to figure this out. Now engaged your class eagerly calculates probabilities. (Spoiler alert: The probability for a 9 is 11.11%.) Consider yourself lucky if you roll a 12. That’s rare, and it also sparks more interest in math, also rare.
Prediction is a learning strategy in its own right. It engages us and we should use it whenever we can. When introducing a new topic, give enough initial information to form an idea. Then ask a question to elicit a prediction. Now absorbed, learning mounts.
Hopefully, none of your predictions come true. That’s when deep learning takes place. You now need to ask yourself why. Go even deeper by asking, “How can you improve your predictions?”
Learning is fun; let’s play.
Probabilities for two dice here.
Brod, Garvin. Predicting as a learning strategy. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2021): 1–9. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-021-01904-1
Theobald, M. & Brod, G. (in press). Tackling scientific misconceptions: the element of surprise, Child Development.