Demos for teachers #1: Tappers and listeners

I love talking with teachers and administrators about cognitive psychology research and how these findings relate to teaching, learning, and assessment. One effective way to start these discussions is to use a “demonstration” – reproducing (at least in a limited way) a key study related to a cognitive psychology concept, and talking about what the data mean about how we think and learn.

This first demonstration – Tappers and Listeners – demonstrates the overconfidence effect. I have a more complete write up of the demonstration here – – but here’s a brief summary:

  • Students work in pairs – one student is the tapper and the other is the listener.
  • Tappers think of a very common song. They get a minute to communicate the song to the listener by tapping the rhythm.
  • Before the task, tappers estimate the % chance the listener will guess the song. Record each estimate.
  • After the task, calculate the % of listeners who successfully guessed the song.
  • The resulting data will most likely show evidence of overconfidence. The tappers’ prediction of success will be significantly higher than the actual success rate. When I use this demonstration with large enough groups of (15+), the tappers group is usually about 60-80% confident in their success, and they are only about 30-50% successful.

This demonstration is a mini-replication of E. L. Newton’s dissertation research . Generating and seeing data of the overconfidence effect “live” with a group of teachers is a great way to start discussions about how overconfidence may impact teaching and learning:

Overconfidence and studying: students are often overconfident “study-ers.” Many students use less effective study methods (like re-reading notes or a section of a textbook repeatedly) and are (over) confident that the study method will help them recall the material. This overconfidence may prevent them from trying more effective study methods (like free recall/retrieval practice). (Reference: Roediger and Karpicke, 2006.)

Overconfidence and teaching: this demonstration can also lead to a potentially important conversation about teaching. The overconfidence effect and this demonstration support the conclusion that humans are overconfident about many of our predictions. Teachers are human (last time we checked) so we should probably admit that the overconfidence effect probably leads us to some inaccurate estimates, including our perceptions about whether students are learning what we intend. If teachers are in some sense, “tappers,” and if tappers are overconfident, then we should remember that it’s likely that we overestimate how many students are “hearing the song” we are tapping. If we “go with our gut” about whether a class is “with us,” we may be fooling ourselves. This admission might lead to a discussion about the importance of quick, instant ways of checking for understanding from all students.


Newton, E. L. (1990). The rocky road from actions to intentions. (dissertation).

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science17(3), 249–255.

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