Psychology in the Classroom #4 – Heuristics

Teaching psychology has taught me things about humans and learning and the classroom that I wouldn’t have experienced had it not been for the psychology curriculum. I think it important to pass some of these lessons along to teachers so as to improve their own instruction. Some of these lessons introduce particular theories of learning, some deal more with the human condition and how this may manifest itself in the classroom. All of these lessons are meant to be bite size; quick five minute reads that give you something to consider before your next class.

Today’s installment focuses on heuristics. When attempting to solve a problem, generally speaking, we either use some sort of algorithm (step by step process) or a heuristic (mental shortcut to a solution that has worked when solving similar problems in the past). For instance, when attempting to unscramble the letters D R U A T S N E D N to form a word, we could design an algorithm which would provide every single possible arrangement of those letters. Or, we could use heuristics in an attempt to solve the problem: 1. most words begin with a consonant, so I’ll start with one of those, 2. the letter S could mean it’s plural, so I’ll put it at the end, and 3. there are two pairs of letters (D and N) and I doubt they are next to each other in the word, so I’ll separate them.

Now, the major positive of using an algorithm is the guarantee of finding the answer. After combing through the tens of thousands of possibilities, I will come across the correct solution. Obviously, that will take a ridiculous amount of time.

The use of heuristics will result in possibly finding the answer much faster, but is much more error prone. Two of the three heuristics mentioned in the paragraph above are incorrect.


Whether it’s unscrambling letters, solving a math problem, or a more real-world conundrum, we usually default to using heuristics…and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It just makes good sense to use prior thinking that has worked to solve similar problems; students and teachers need to be aware, though, of the potential errors in their thinking when using heuristics.

Breaking down heuristics a bit more, there are two types we discuss in my AP Psychology class: availability heuristics and representativeness heuristics.

When using the availability heuristic, we judge the likelihood of an event based upon how available it is in our mind. The more available a memory is and/or the more examples we have, the more likely we judge its existence and correctness. For example, answer this question: which country has a greater population, Papua New Guinea or Switzerland? At least in the United States, most of my students would quickly pick Switzerland as being more populated. In reality, Papau New Guinea (as of September 30 ,2021) has a greater population. Why would my students choose Switzerland? Because it is a more ‘popular’ country. We hear more about it and talk more about it in school and media. Because it is more available in our memory, we judge its likeliness of being more populated versus a less ‘popular’ country with a bias. The availability heuristic isn’t just seen in silly trivia questions like the one above. Marketing and advertising companies know that we are more likely to purchase or use an item/service if it is more readily available in the mind of the consumer.

When using the representativeness heuristic, we judge a current situation based upon similar past experiences. The more a current situation resembles a past experience, the more we will judge its likelihood to be similar. For example, if I’ve had an experience where a dog bit me, I may create a heuristic where all dogs are dangerous and I am now very tentative around dogs. The dog that bit me in the past now represents and impacts all interactions with dogs.

How does this apply to the classroom?

Again, the use of heuristics, rather than algorithms, isn’t necessarily a bad concept. It just makes good sense that I’ll reuse a formula or method for solving a problem in math class if that method worked previously on similar problems. Imagine a world where we didn’t learn to realize these similarities and we had to be retaught the concept with every different problem…not ideal…not efficient. And it is properly safe to realize that I should learn from a past mistake and assume all stoves are hot before placing my hand on the burner.

The danger in using these heuristics is that they can narrow our abilities to take all perspectives of a problem, possibly creating a bias. Unfortunately, especially with the representativeness heuristic, these representations can come to create biases that become stereotypes that may become prejudice and/or discrimination. We see this with the generalization of entire religions, ethnicities, professions, et cetera because of the actions of a few that represent those groups.

Specifically, in the classroom, talking with students about these heuristics can be beneficial. Telling students that they may have had negative experiences with group work in the past, but that shouldn’t cloud your judgement of a current group assignment. Or, when stuck on a problem, zoom out and consider whether the method(s) being used actually apply to the problem. And teachers, we shouldn’t judge students based upon past similar students; whether that be siblings or other students who ‘look like’ or ‘act like’ current students.

We can’t stop the intuitive use of heuristics to solve problems in our environment, but we can be aware of how those heuristics may blind us to solutions or lead us to judgements that may not be correct. Keep an open mind. Knowledge is power and, often times, compassion for others.

Where do heuristics fit in with respect to your classroom?

How might students misuse heuristics in your classroom?

How might you, the teacher, misuse heuristics in the classroom?

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