In a nutshell, optimism bias is the tendency to make overly positive assumptions.  This serves us well (giving us courage to try new things) but it also leads us astray (viewing the future as rosy despite the bad choices we are about to make).  There’s an excellent article in Time Magazine called The Optimism Bias that I highly recommend reading before you go any further.

Apparently our brains (most of them) are “hardwired for hope.”  When we remember the past, we omit details and our recall contains errors, but when we imagine the future, we tend to construct fiction that is dramatically better than the likely outcome.  This is, for example, why New Year’s resolutions are so intoxicating to us – we construct a “future me” that is thinner, healthier, happier and we can literally see ourselves living that life (even if past experience with resolutions would tell us otherwise).

Consider the optimism bias of our students.  In particular, consider the belief that things will turn out better at the end of the semester.  For example, how many of you have had students who fail exam after exam, but believe that in the end, their grade will come out okay?  There is no indication from the instructor that this will be the case. In fact, the syllabus clearly states the likely outcome by including a grading scale, but the students’ optimistic prognosis keeps them from seeking help when help could still be afforded.  As soon as final grades are published (or sometimes a day or two before the final exam), these students suddenly face reality and are angry that their vision of success is not what actually happened.  Their optimism bias has just met reality and they are usually pissed.

Another classic case of optimism bias is evident in online classes.  Anyone who has taught an online course knows that some students are just not realistic about the commitment to learning.  A recent column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, called Improving Online Success, by Rob Jenkins tackled the issue from the point-of-view of time-management.  I’ve been teaching online Calculus since 2007, and I don’t think the problem is as easy as time-management.  That’s just what administrators tell themselves so that they can optimistically see themselves fixing the problem.  The real underlying problem is optimism bias.

Students, especially those at 2-year colleges, believe that they are supermen and superwomen, that they will be able to work 40+ hours a week, take care of their families, and go to school full time.  When they sign up for traditional classes, they come face-to-face with the fact that they cannot simultaneously be going to work AND attending a live class.  They cannot be simultaneously taking care of children AND attending a live class (without making childcare arrangements).  With online classes, these students never face this discordance.  They optimistically believe that they will somehow “find the time” to attend the class (even if it is not reasonable).

I used to have students fill out a “study schedule” at the beginning of each semester, where they filled out the blocks of work hours, class hours, family hours, sleeping, eating, etc.  This was to help them see that there was precious little “study time” left.  But this never seemed to have any effect.  The students with the least study time in their schedule still believed that “it all works out in the end.” Lessons in time-management did nothing to bring their imaginings in line with the reality of the need for study time.

For the students who take my online Calculus classes every summer, I meticulously track their participation metrics for the first two weeks.  I call every student, starting with the ones with dismal participation metrics – I walk them through which buttons to press, I ask them if they are sure they have enough time for the class (especially when they’ve logged in only once in 7 days), but they are always optimistic.  “Well,” they say, “it was just that this week was so busy. Next week will be different.”  Next week is rarely different.

Rather than a course on time management or how to “succeed” in online classes (neither of which would solve the optimism bias issue), I would prefer that we simply offer a 1/2-credit online learning experience as a precursor to the regular semester.  These would be short 2-week “topics” courses, something the professor would like to teach but is not already part of a regular course (e.g. fractals, data visualization, vegetable gardening in cold climates, vampires in literature, etc.).  This course could include advice on time management, but its real purpose would be for the student to prove to themselves that they can (or can’t) learn something (anything) new using an online format.  The topics courses should be rigorous enough to give the students a real taste of online learning (reading assignments, discussion board participation, assignments, and assessments) .  After all, if you can’t cut it in a 2-week online course, you’re not likely to make it in a lengthier and more difficult course.  If a student fails an online topics course, they should not be allowed to take higher-credit online courses.  If, next year, the same student claims they are now ready for online learning, let them take another 2-week topics course to prove it.

I’m sure you can think of dozens more cases of optimism bias in Academe, including cases of professors with optimism bias.  For example, I spend the weeks before classes dreaming of wonderful assignments and projects I can give in my math classes while glossing over the fact that every extra assignment will take time to develop and time to grade.  Only several semesters of past experience grounds me to the reality that I probably can’t change more than one major thing about a course at a time, and at this point, even that one major change is looking kind of optimistically rosy.

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