The riddle 50% of Harvard students got wrong

Does it mean they are stupid? No, it actually means they are not pondering the question. Instead they get distracted by intuition and do not get to see there is a deeper sense to the problem. The problem itself, devised by Yale professor Shane Frederick, is:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Of course, everyone’s initial idea is: “Yes! The ball must be 10 cents!!“. Which is wrong. Watch the video below. It explains that if a problem is posed in a simple way, then people are more likely to not reflect on it. They even show that if you make the font of your presentations a little more complicated to read then students are more likely to remember and understand the concepts explained. Wow.

I mean, there are a few interesting myths at play here. One is certainly the belief that students learn in class. The video, the research and everything reinforces the concept -so predominant in this hemisphere, that learning happens within the classroom, and no effort is asked of the student to actually, well, *study*.

The second thing worth discussing is that some (including yours truly…) say students do not understand problems posed to them because they have a poor mastery of their own language. But the video and its research show that precisely if you express a problem in a more difficult-to-get language, students get it easier!

Test yourself: Are you being tricked by intuition?

But the problem show also another issue. It may well be that students do not have the analytical abilities to solve this kinds of problems? I mean, logical and mathematical problems? Can it be that schools are failing students on this issue? The answer we intuitively issue is that yes, schools do not give students the cognitive, logical and reasoning skills to solve problems like this. Of course, Harvard students do get to solve the problem provided they are not sidetracked by a problem’s expression. And the other 99%?

Anyhow, bad job our institutions and our Schools of Comparative Irrelevance are doing with their overstated competencies, especially the one in “critical reasoning”. #FAIL?

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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