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Can We Overcome “My Side Bias” in the Classroom?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

12/19/2019

Human beings have a natural tendency to overlook evidence that conflicts with their current understanding. This is often referred to as “confirmation bias” or “my side bias.” In a previous study into the use of debate and argumentation as a teaching and learning strategy, Lordanou and Associates (2019) discovered that most students ignored evidence that supported the other side of a debate or weakened their own position. The researchers wanted to know whether varying the instructional framing of an activity could encourage students to actively consider information that conflicted with their own positions.

Middle school students on a summer program participated in a two-day program during which they researched and debated the issue of whether workers should contribute some of their pay to a government social security program or whether they should instead save for their own retirement. They were given information in a question-and-answer format that had proved in a previous study (see my other article) to support students in integrating the evidence in the context of their debate.

Individual student learning was assessed through argument essays written before and after the intervention defending the position each student had chosen. The essays were coded for “functional units of evidence,” by which the researchers meant that a student had used a piece of evidence in support of a claim. Each functional unit was further categorized as:

Support my own: a statement serving to support the student’s position.

Weaken other: a statement serving to weaken the opposing position.

Support other: a statement serving to acknowledge potential strengths in the opposing position

Weaken my own: a statement serving to acknowledge a weakness in one’s own position.

The experimental treatment across three groups varied only in the instructions students were given. The first group was told, “Try to use this information in your arguments.” The second group was simply told, “Here’s some information about the topic.” The third group was told, “Here’s some information about the topic. Not all of the evidence is going to support your side; if it doesn’t, see if you can deal with it.”

What were the results of the study?

• The performance of groups one and two was similar. The prompt to make use of the information in arguments did not seem to make a difference.

• The third group, which had been told to deal with incongruent evidence, showed superior performance to that of the other groups. Their essays contained an average of 6.76 functional units, as compared with 3.98 in the other two groups.

• The third group was superior both in the number of students including “support other” or “weaken my own” units in their final essays, as well as the total frequencies with which they were used. Among students in group three, 43 percent included evidence that supported the other position as opposed to 19 percent in the other groups. Again, 29 percent of students in the third group included “weaken my own” evidence as opposed to 3 percent for the other groups.

• How did students in group three deal with the discrepant evidence? Some acknowledged it but did not address it any further. Others produced a counterargument against it.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

The study shows that even small reframings of instructional activities can lead to learning gains. Directing students’ attention to the presence of conflicting information and asking them to deal with it produced superior learning to simply providing students with the same information. However, more than half the students in group three still ignored the incongruent evidence completely in their final essay.

One example is particularly interesting. A pair of students made a claim that governments keep your money safe for you. Each time they made the claim during the debating activities, it was countered by another pair with evidence that refuted it. The second time this happened, the pair who made the claim conceded that their claim was not always true. In their final essays, however, one of the students in the pair chose not to mention the issue at all and the other student returned to the pair’s original claim, completely ignoring the counterargument they had heard twice and conceded.

I believe this means that, the advantage demonstrated in this study of varying the instructions notwithstanding, as teachers we simply must teach students explicit strategies for noticing discrepant information and for rethinking their current understanding by adapting their mental schema to realistically incorporate the discrepant information. Overcoming “my side bias” is far from easy, but is an essential skill in our increasingly polarized world.




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