How badly do you want the answers?

You have just taken a five-question quiz. Now you have a choice: I will either tell you the right answers, or I will give you a candy bar and not tell you the right answers.

Which would you choose?

According to Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, what you think you would do and what you would actually do are two vastly different things.

Gilbert, citing 1994 research by Carnegie-Mellon Prof. George Loewenstein, says study participants predict that they would prefer the candy bar to the answers, but after the fact, their curiosity trumps their sugar cravings. They can’t stand not knowing the answers.

Why does this fascinate me? Because I’m interested in any strategy that will pique students’ curiosity — especially one that makes them value knowledge over candy.

Other educational researchers have found that giving students a pretest preps their brains for learning something new, and I’ve been using that strategy in my AP Psych class for the past two years. For example, before starting our unit on Personality last week, students took a 10-question quiz that included this one:

Most professionals from the United States rate themselves better in performance and competence than their average peer. This is an example of:

  • objective self-awareness
  • the fundamental attribution error
  • self-serving bias
  • self-actualization

Does taking this pretest make Psych students more interested in learning these concepts? In general, they don’t come running to class, begging me to enlighten them. But research suggests that when they do learn the answer in class or from reading, they’re more likely to file it away.

I haven’t tried to isolate the impact of unit pre-tests, but now I’m curious about trying to Loewenstein’s strategy more directly.

What if, instead of a unit pretest, students took a mystery quiz to start class every day, with questions they’d be unlikely to master before class? Would they be primed to listen and participate more actively in class, just to try to assuage their curiosity and find out the answers?

We’ll find out. And by the way, since I don’t have any candy bars to distribute, the answer is self-serving bias.

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