How your brain lights up when you fail

Martin Hall

One of the key mechanisms determining equality of access to education is assessment. This is because key assessment events serve as a gateway to the next level of opportunity. There is a turnstile at the end of every year of High School, determining who is promoted to the next grade and who has to repeat a year. This generates the achievement gaps that are characteristic of schooling in many countries. South Africa is at the extreme of this global trend. The Research on Socioeconomic Policy team at Stellenbosch University has shown that by Grade 10, when students begin to prepare for the National Senior Certificate, there is an achievement gap that is equivalent to four years of learning. 

Spaull and Kotze, “Starting behind and staying behind in South Africa”

Similarly, examinations at the end of High School shape who will gain admission to which kind of college or university. Analysis of this year’s British A-level results shows widening inequalities. 22.0% those writing A-levels at comprehensive schools in England were awarded grade A or above, compared with 47.4% at independent schools. 8.3% more learners achieved an A or above in the affluent south-east than in the poorer north-east. In both the South African and the British examples, differing levels of attainment correlate with household income.

Because these assessment gateways are so important in determining a person’s life trajectory, the details of how tests and examinations are structured really matters. For example, it’s long been shown that context can play an important role in advantaging one examination candidate over another; if you ask a student to give a factual account of a snow storm based on their own observations, then a student living in Chicago will have an obvious advantage over a student living in Nairobi. This is why some assessment exercises are “scaffolded”, with essential information provided as part of the assessment exercise – for example, in South Africa’s National Benchmark Tests, which are used alongside the National Senior Certificate to assess applications for university admission.

It follows from these discrepancies that good assessment design is crucial in ensuring genuine equality of opportunity. A range of research fields come into play in understanding what this should look like. One fascinating example of the potential of transdisciplinary thinking comes from Cognitive Neuroscience. 

In a series of laboratory experiments at Columbia University’s Department of Psychology, a simple assessment exercise was simulated to see how students responded to failing a question. Volunteers were divided into two categories – those who were confident in their ability to pass, and those who were less sure about their level of confidence. After an interval, everyone was given a second chance. The results showed that the more confident students were much more likely to pass the test the second time round than those who lacked confidence. This is a result of the “hypercorrection effect“, formally defined as “enhanced attention and encoding that results from a metacognitive mismatch between the person’s confidence in their responses and the true answer”; in simpler language, the shock and amazement that a confident person gets from discovering that they are wrong. The Columbia researchers captured this in MRI brain scans of their volunteers, with high confidence errors showing as red.

Moving across the span of the disciplines, these test results from Cognitive Neuroscience prompt a thought experiment, following from the Stellenbosch study of the achievement gap in Mathematics across schools in South Africa.

Imagine the level of confidence of two sets of learners in different High Schools as they enter Grade 10. One group is in a Quintile 5 school – a state school that is allowed to charge additional fees and which enrols students predominantly from affluent families. More than 90% of learners from this school will successfully complete their National Senior Certificate exams in three years time. The other group is from a Quintile 1, no-fee school, at which only 20% of those starting Grade 10 will go on to sit the NSC exams at the end of Grade 12. 

Extrapolating from the Columbia experiments, it’s clear that in-class assessments that don’t take account of the differing confidence levels in Quintile 1 and Quintile 5 schools are likely to invoke the hypercorrection effect, further widening the achievement gap as these Grade 10 learners continue to move through the Maths curriculum. This is because the Maths classes in the Quintile 1 schools will already contain a comparatively high proportion of learners who have been required to complete one or more grades, damaging their confidence in themselves. In contrast, the large majority of learners in the Quintile 5 schools will have successfully completed all the assessments in each proceeding school year, and will start Grade 10 Mathematics confident of their success. If they get a Maths problem wrong, they will experience a “metacognitive mismatch”; their brains will glow red as they hypercorrect, getting it right the next time around.

Cliff, A. (2015). “The National Benchmark Test in Academic Literacy: How might it be used to support teaching in higher education?” Language Matters 46(1): 3-21.

Forrest, A. and J. Stone (2023). A-level results: Biggest drop in top grades on record as Tories accused of ‘exacerbating’ class divide. Independent. London.

Metcalfe, J., B. Butterfield, C. Habeck and Y. Stern (2012). “Neural Correlates of People’s Hypercorrection of Their False Beliefs.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 24(7): 1571-1583.

Spaull, N. and J. Kotze (2015). “Starting behind and staying behind in South Africa. The case of insurmountable learning deficits in mathematics.” International Journal of Educational Development 41: 13-24.

Leave a Reply