In a typical supervised learning experiment, one might present visual stimuli, e.g. faces, one after another and ask participants to classify each one into one of two categories, e.g. A and B. Usually participants are not required to DO anything after getting feedback - they just wait, and eventually the next trial appears. Does learning improve if, when the response is incorrect, participants are required to change their response to the correct one before proceeding?

To provide some context - unlike the "typical" experiment described above, I am using educationally relevant materials - mathematics story problems. They are still binary forced choice, but responses are given using radio buttons instead of the usual "press P or Q", so to correct an incorrect response, participants would have to go change the radio button response.

More specifically, since details were requested, all of the problems are story problems involving the concept of "sampling with replacement". Before doing the problems, participants read an instructional passage explaining the general formula for sampling with replacement problems. This passage explains that each problem involves two numbers, a and b, where a indicates the number of sampling events and b indicates the size of the sampled set. The problems ask for the number of different possible outcomes, which is given by the formula a^b. Thus, to solve the problems, it is only necessary to figure out which number is the number of sampling events and which the size of the sampled set. Here is a sample problem:

A group of friends is eating at a restaurant. Each person chooses a meal from the menu. (It is possible for multiple people to choose the same meal.) In how many different ways can the friends choose their meals, if there are 4 friends and 5 meals?




I can think of at least two reasons why they MIGHT learn better from doing this. First, it might improve motivation - they know it's a pain in the neck when they answer wrong, so they're more motivated to answer right. Second, it might have a cognitive benefit, in that they would encode the correct and incorrect answers more strongly because they have to actually respond in some way.

On the other hand, there could be a negative effect in that it interrupts the flow of the trials. Doing a large number of trials quickly, pop pop pop, could increase learners' fluency, and such benefits could be decreased by the proposed requirement.

On the third hand, it might be even more beneficial to use an even more extreme version of the proposed requirement, e.g. present several questions at once and only tell them that SOME are wrong, not WHICH ones, so they have to think about it even more. Of course this could encourage them to figure out ways to play the system and could be even worse with respect to the possible negative effect I mentioned.

Anyone have any evidence or speculations about this?

  • $\begingroup$ If you just give a right/wrong feedback, the learner has to experiment to find the right answer. Depending on the topic, this can be extremely time consuming. Think of learning vocabulary: there are millions of possible meanings that one word can have. Just replying "wrong" will not help much. And while a mistake in learning social interactions or bicycle riding might have a beneficial effect (in that you learn something about how the world reacts to your different behaviors), the mistake and its effects are meaningless in the learning tasks that you describe and therefore without benefit. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Sep 22, 2013 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ @what - if I understand you correctly, your comment seems to suggest that operant conditioning has no place here due to the complexity of the problem and the simplicity of the feedback. However, while subjects may not understand the reason, subjects shall still be able to learn the link between the stimuli and response. For instance, any 4 year old should be able to learn that a statement such as "The speed of sound is proportional to the density, elasticity and temperature of the medium" is right, even if one has no notion of what the vocabulary actually mean. $\endgroup$
    – Izhaki
    Sep 22, 2013 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ No, with "meaningful" I mean that there are mistakes that return information so that while I don't learn what I was attempting to learn I learn something else. Many scientific discoveries are made in this way, as accidents or sideeffects of mistakes made. I don't deny that you CAN learn something, if the only feedback you get is "right" or "wrong", only that this is not the most effective and quickest way to teach something (which is what this question seems to be about: better learning). $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Sep 22, 2013 at 16:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ With this I agree. Although I find the question somewhat incomplete - what is the overall goal and context of the experiment? And example question and answers would also help. It would be beneficial if the OP extend the question to answer these in order to receive more relevant answers. $\endgroup$
    – Izhaki
    Sep 22, 2013 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ @what - because it is a binary forced choice task, no experimentation is needed to find the right answer if you already know that a particular one of the answers is wrong. $\endgroup$
    – baixiwei
    Sep 22, 2013 at 16:55

1 Answer 1


Several different, well-received theories of education would say yes. However, it depends on the quality of 'correct' information that is received after the answer is deemed 'incorrect'.

In Jean Piaget's constructivist theory of education, it is theorized that individuals construct new knowledge through methods of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation requires taking new information and modifying it to fit into an existing framework (without changing the framework itself), and accommodation requires taking new information and updating an existing framework in line with the newly-learned information. Self-correcting responses allow the individual to consciously accommodate new information in accordance with the cognitive dissonance that may result from conflicting perspectives on information.

In the theory of cognitive apprenticeship, it is speculated that there are six teaching methods that are integral to advancing a student's knowledge in a domain. Among those are reflection, which allows students to "compare their own problem-solving processes with those of an expert, another student, and ultimately, an internal cognitive model of expertise." In more complex tasks, correcting ones' mistakes in accordance with the techniques and heuristics used by a knowledgable other would be considered a method of reflection. However, it is not clear that this would further apply to a multiple-choice test, as ones' methods for reaching a conclusion are less observable for tests of that nature.

In fact, there is evidence to show that, while multiple-choice tests may be good predictors of academic performance, multiple-choice questions aren't accurate assessments of actual knowledge. For example:

Multiple choice tests are best adapted for testing well-defined or lower-order skills. Problem-solving and higher-order reasoning skills are better assessed through short-answer and essay tests. Another disadvantage of multiple choice tests is possible ambiguity in the examinee's interpretation of the item. Failing to interpret information as the test maker intended can result in an "incorrect" response, even if the taker's response is potentially valid. The term "multiple guess" has been used to describe this scenario because test-takers may attempt to guess rather than determine the correct answer. A free response test allows the test taker to make an argument for their viewpoint and potentially receive credit.

Therefore, it may be the case that self-correcting in the instance of an incorrect answer (accommodated by an explanation for the 'correct' answer) can actually improve knowledge, and aid in the accommodation of new knowledge.

For this reason (and for accommodation to effectively occur), in the instance of a multiple-choice test, it may be better practice to consciously reason through the answer in the face of feedback, instead of simply selecting the correct answer.


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