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Confidence Tracking: A Brain Hack for Improving Your Exam Grades

Earlier this year, I made a video that set out to answer a question almost every student faces:

“Should I change answers I’m unsure about on exams, or stick with my initial answer?”

For as long as I can remember, the prevailing wisdom has always been to stick with your initial answer. However, as the research in that video revealed, the opposite was actually true.

This “first-instinct fallacy” – our tendency to put more value on our first answers and even skew our memories in support of them – resulted in more wrong answers overall than the practice of changing an answer when unsure.

So that was then. This is now.

With that groundwork laid, I’d like to proudly announce that my earlier video is now wrong.

The beauty of science is that, at pretty much any time, new data can be discovered that invalidates earlier conclusions.

That is what has happened in the case of this debate on changing answers, and the result is a technique that will help you more accurately judge whether or not to stick with your initial answer on each individual question. It’s called confidence tracking.

Here’s how to use it:

  • As you go through your exam, mark your confidence in your answer to each question using a score of 1-5 – 1 being very unsure, and 5 being almost certain. Make sure you do this before moving onto the next question.
  • When going back through the exam, use your confidence ratings to decide whether or not you should change an answer. Questions with high ratings should most likely remain unchanged; lower-rated questions are better candidates for revisions.

What Does This Technique Do?

Confidence Tracking on Exams

In short, tracking your confidence in the moment is the best way of accurately gauging it.

The “hack” here is that you’re taking advantage of the fact that your brain is very good at judging its level of certainty right after answering a question, and it’s not very good at doing so later on (when most students start reviewing questions and making changes).

If you’re game, here’s the longer explanation.

The confidence tracking technique takes advantage of metacognition, which essentially “thinking about thinking”. It is our ability to analyze our own beliefs and decisions. To make an analogy, it illustrates how the brain is a “lens that sees its own flaws”.

One of the core aspects of metacognition is our ability to judge our confidence in our knowledge. We can feel uncertain; that is, we know when we do not know.

I started learning about metacognition a few months ago when I interviewed Justin Couchman, an professor or psychology at Albright College (and if you listened to that episode, this article is mainly review for you).

Justin’s first forays into the study of metacognition took the form of research on Rhesus monkeys. In a study he helped conduct called The Highs and Lows of Theoretical Interpretation in Animal-Metacognition Research, he and two other psychology professors set out to see if animals share the same metacognitive capabilities that we have.

In their study, the Rhesus monkeys were given questions of varying levels of difficulty. For each, they either had to provide and answer or indicate that they didn’t know it.

Couchman was surprised to find that the monkeys did, in fact, report when they didn’t know. They had the ability to look into their own minds and judge their level of certainty – much like we do.

This result got him thinking about the metacognitive abilities of his students, who were often surprised when their exam grades turned out far higher or lower than they predicted.

Now, the monkeys aren’t better at metacognition than students are. As it turns out, there’s a reason this happens so often.

The problem with metacognition is that it isn’t perfect. I used the analogy of a “lens that sees its own flaws” for a reason; our brains are subject to all sorts of “bugs” – cognitive biases, heuristics, and flawed modes of thinking.

To quote the AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky (whom I borrowed the analogy from):

“The brain is a flawed lens through which to see reality. This is true of both mouse brains and human brains. But a human brain is a flawed lens that can understand its own flaws – its systematic errors, its biases – and apply second-order corrections to them.”

One of these flaws is that our memories are notoriously unreliable. As a result, our metacognitive abilities decay as we try to use them on thoughts we had further and further in the past.

So, to learn more about this “metacognitive decay”, Couchman decided to conduct another study. In this one, he and his partners had participants take a multiple-choice exam. Their goal was to analyze the effect of tracking answer confidence in the moment, as well as to observe when participants revised answers.

In the first round of the experiment, here’s what happened:

  • Participants were instructed to mark each of their answers with a G (for Guess) or K (for Known) before continuing to the next question
  • They were also instructed to mark when they revised an answer
  • The results: Revisions were more often than not correct – especially for the questions marked “G”

Moving onto a second experiment, Couchman and his colleagues made one change:

  • Instead of a G or a K, participants scored their confidence using the 1-5 scale I mentioned earlier.
  • The results: This time, initial answers were more often correct than revisions for answers that were changed.

Now, these results would seem contradictory – but that’s only the case if we assume there can be only one Highlander rule of thumb: “Stick with your gut” or “Always change answers when you’re unsure.”

Instead, there is no universal rule of thumb. 

Utilizing confidence tracking gives you a more powerful tool. When you assign a confidence score to a question right after you answer it, you’re utilizing your brain’s metacognitive abilities at their most accurate point, which gives brain a more sensitive tool for making the correct choice.

If you’re unable to see the video above, you can view it on YouTube.

Looking for More Study Tips?

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades - Thomas FrankIf you want even more techniques that can help you study better and earn better test grades, you’ll enjoy my free 100+ page book called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less).

The book covers topics like:

  • Effective study techniques
  • Defeating procrastination
  • Getting more out of your classes
  • Taking great notes
  • Reading your textbooks more efficiently

…and several more. It also has a lot of recommendations for tools and other resources that can make your studying easier.

If you’d like a free copy of the book, let me know where I should send it:

I’ll also keep you updated about new posts and videos that come out on this blog (they’ll be just as good as this one or better) 🙂

Video Notes

Confidence Tracking: A Brain Hack for Improving Your Exam Grades
Here’s a Pinterest-worthy image for sharing this video 🙂

Here are the actual studies I referenced, in case you really want to go off into the weeds:

So here’s the big question: do you plan on using this technique in your future exams?

If you liked this video, here are some of my other ones that relate to tests and exams:

If you liked this video, subscribe on YouTube to stay updated and get notified when new ones are out!