The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Am big, you wuss

Something that has fascinated me fairly fixedly over the last couple of years is just how inefficient and ineffective our minds are. It all began with me trying to get a grip on what was going on at work. People seemed to be behaving really strangely – I was behaving perfectly coherently and rationally, I thought. I have listed elsewhere the books that I started reading, so won’t do so again. But this morning I had the thought of beginning a simple series that might explore some of the known cognitive biases and how they relate to this thing of ours. Today, for no other reason than it tops the list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia, I present you with the ambiguity effect.

Stated simply, this effect suggests that when people are presented with a series of choices, they will typically prefer the choice where they think they can predict the outcome and are most certain that it will be favourable. If there is an outcome that may be favourable, they will discount it and go with the one they feel sure will reap the rewards. Any harm in that? Not necessarily. But then again, not necessarily not either.

Let’s look at what it might mean for learners: I have a steady stream of learners from China who have all been taught the same nonsense when writing essays. This nonsense means that they regurgitate bilge that will get them a reasonably acceptable score, but they can never seem to get past this low level of achievement. As they do exam after exam after exam and fail to progress, they determine that the only reason that they can’t soar with the eagles (who can all write beautifully polished pieces of prose with their talons) is because their English is poor and they need more grammar and vocabulary.

Not so, I tell them. You need to stop writing utter bilge and start tidying up your efforts at composition. Here, I say, take this simple pattern and fly with it. They play along in the class and then churn out the same old crap when it really matters. I tear my hair out and use it to stuff old restored armchairs and things. I am going to open a furniture shop before too long.

But the reason that they are doing this is because of the ambiguity effect. The preference is for the old tried and tested way that secures them a minimally acceptable score in their exam. It’s not what they need to get, but it’s not too far off. Perhaps if they had a smidgin more grammar and vocabulary, they might be able to make it…

Incidentally, at this point, allow me to rail against IELTS for reporting student achievement in whole numbers and 0.5s. I am convinced that this has the student thinking, Damn! I’m only half a mark away from what I want to achieve…perhaps if I try again next week (at the cost of over £100), I’ll finally hit the target! In my world, IELTS scores would be reported in thousands. A student who wasn’t quite a 5000 would only be a 4500. Now they would need to increase their aptitude in English by at least 500. You can’t do that in a week…

Back to the ambiguity effect. So, the students have determined that the old ways are the most reliable. They don’t get you what you need, but they are predictable. Of course, they could have used the framework that I have been teaching them, but they have no way of knowing how this will pan out. So, in the blue corner are the hackneyed old turds that they have been churning out for years (minus all the grammar and the vocab that they obviously need). In the red corner is an unknown challenger that might win the fight, but nobody knows for sure. The ambiguity effect says, “Don’t bet on red. Bet on Blue. You know what Blue can do. Red is a gamble.” The result: students narrowly (!!!) fail their exam and I bring new life to a lovely 1970s chaise longue from DFS.

How the hell do we get around this one? Students need to be trained to understand why they are making the choices that they are making. Highlight the fact to them that they may be sticking with the devil they know rather than risking it with something that they are uncertain about. Come to think of it, perhaps this is what they need to remember when they are playing with vocabulary as well: rather than finding new and more varied ways of expressing themselves, they stick with what they have known for years and this keeps them hovering around the intermediate plateau.

Secondly, make it a rule that student ambition is rewarded. Students should only discount an option because they know that its outcome will not be favourable to them. If they are uncertain, they need to be encouraged and then rewarded for having a stab.

Thirdly, remind students to gather as much information as possible. With writing, they can show their efforts to a range of people before they hand it in to you for assessment. You will need to make sure that they have deadlines that are long enough to permit the process to go full cycle. I think it is also very valuable to give them a fairly detailed explanation of what to do during that timescale: Monday, write the introduction. Tues, show my introduction to X, Y and Z and ask them if it looks any good to them. Weds, do some research online to find some helpful information to build my argument. Note down at least five new phrases that I will try to use in my piece of writing. etc

Fourthly, encourage students to welcome ambiguity. Here are some great quotations (and some crappy ones) about ambiguity. I am sure you can find some more. Personally, I used to drill the mantra The best language learners are the ones who can tolerate most ambiguity.

Fifthly, work as hard as necessary for students to understand that when they submit something to you for your evaluation, they need to be submitting their very best efforts because all of your constructively critical feedback will be worth most if this is the case. There is no point in you pointing out errors that they are already aware of; conversely, every bit of feedback that you can give on a piece of work that is already as good as it can be is worth its weight in gold. I am aware that feedback doesn’t tend to weigh very much, but…

One phrase take-away: Better the devil you’ve never met than the devil you know…


01 Dec 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings |


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Comment by teachingbattleground | 01 Dec 2014 | Reply

  2. Interesting that this seems to be a common problem with Chinese students in particular.

    So you’re basically suggesting that Ielts adopts the (old) Toefl scoring format? It is a good point that students believe that, for example, a 5.5 is almost a 6.0, and for some reason, there isn’t much out there to discourage this view! I’ve also known very many teachers who believe that 0.5 is a small leap. To be fair, although it is a huge leap in terms of grammar and vocabulary, it is sometimes easy to lose 0.5 in an exam. I recently marked a 5.5 essay, which would have been 6.0 if the candidate had written just two more words!

    ‘The best language learners are the ones who can tolerate most ambiguity’. Where did I read something about this recently??? (Was it in this blog?)

    Comment by paulsimonduffy | 10 Dec 2014 | Reply

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