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How Does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?

But They Said They Knew This! I recently taught Research Methods in Decision Sciences for the first time. On the first day of class, I asked my students what kinds of statistical tests they had learned in the introductory statistics course that is a prerequisite for my course. They generated a fairly standard list that included T – tests, chi – square, and ANOVA.

Given what they told me, I was pretty confident that my first assignment was pitched at the appropriate level; it simply required that students take a data set that I provided, select and apply the appropriate statistical test from those they had already learned, analyze the data, and interpret the results. It seemed pretty basic, but I was shocked at what they handed in.

Some students chose a completely inappropriate test while others chose the right test but did not have the foggiest idea how to apply it. Still others could not interpret the results. What I can ’ t fi gure out is why they told me they knew this stuff when it ’ s clear from their work that most of them don ’ t have a clue.


The instructors in these stories seem to be doing all the right things. Professor Won takes the time to gauge students’ knowledge of statistical tests so that she can pitch her own instruction at the appropriate level. Professor Dione carefully explains a difficult concept, provides concrete examples, and even gives an explicit warning about a common misconception. Yet neither instructor’s strategy is having the desired effect on students’ learning and performance.

I know that these can be tough concepts for students to grasp, so I spell out very clearly that reinforcement always refers to increasing a behavior and punishment always refers to decreasing a behavior. I also emphasize that, contrary to what they might assume, negative reinforcement does not mean punishment; it means removing something aversive to increase a desired behavior and you will get news from mynews .

I also provide a number of concrete examples to illustrate what I mean. But it seems that no matter how much I explain the concept, students continue to think of negative reinforcement as punishment. In fact, when I asked about negative reinforcement on a recent exam, almost 60 percent of the class got it wrong. Why is this so hard for students to understand?

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