Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Impression Formation of Tests: Retrospective Judgments of Performance Are Higher When Easier Questions Come First

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Impression Formation of Tests: Retrospective Judgments of Performance Are Higher When Easier Questions Come First

Article excerpt

Published online: 28 June 2014

(Q> Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Four experiments are reported on the importance of retrospective judgments of performance (postdictions) on tests. Participants answered general knowledge questions and estimated how many questions they answered correctly. They gave higher postdictions when easy questions preceded difficult questions. This was true when time to answer each question was equalized and constrained, when participants were instructed not to write answers, and when questions were presented in a multiple-choice format. Results are consistent with the notion that first impressions predominate in overall perception of test difficulty.

Keywords Impression formation * Metacognition * Primacy effect * Testing

First impressions can be particularly influential in shaping our view of a person, a notion common enough to have its own aphorisms: "First impressions are lasting impressions" and "You only get one chance to make a first impression." Indeed, Jane Austen's early version oí Pride and Prejudice was entitled First Impressions (Fergus, 1997); a central theme in the novel revolves around characters making initial judgments about each other, some warranted and some unwarranted, but all difficult to change. The importance of early impressions in person evalu- ation has been a common theme in social-psychological re- search on person perception since Solomon Asch's influential work in the 1940s. Asch (1946) reasoned that we form impressions of people globally. In one of a series of experiments, Asch looked specifically at order effects in impression formation. Participants were read a list of traits, both favorable and unfavorable, describing a hypothetical person. Asch left the content of the list the same, but manipulated the order of the traits between participants. After hearing the list, participants were asked about their impressions of the person. Participants who had heard the list with the positive traits first rated the person more favorably than did participants who had heard the negative traits first. Forgas (2011) notes: "The disproportionate influence of first impres- sions is one of the most robust and rehable effects distorting such [impression formation] judgments (Asch, 1946; Grano, 1977)" (p. 427). Researchers in the decades since Asch's re- search have built on his work by studying the impact of a variety of different variables, such as affect (Forgas, 2011), mental fatigue (Webster, Richter, & Kruglanski, 1996), and need for cognition (Ahlering & Parker, 1989), on primacy in impression formation.

The importance of first impressions presumably does not apply only to people, but to situations as well. For example, impressions of cognitive tasks should play an important role in metamemory-that is, knowledge about memory and at- tempts to monitor and control learning and retrieval (Dunlosky & Thiede, 2013). Much research on metamemory has focused on prospective monitoring, those judgments pertaining to future performance. However, an important com- ponent of metacognitive judgment is retrospective, that is, for example, an evaluation of how well one has performed on a test, in the absence of feedback. Retrospective judgments may play a role in students' decisions about whether to drop a class or to cancel a standardized test score. Such retrospective evaluations should be based in part on impressions of the overall difficulty of a test. The focus of this article is the influence of the order of test questions, in terms of difficulty, on self-evaluations of performance. Questions on a test can be arranged in different ways, and in many cases are not arranged randomly. Some tests, such as the computer-adaptive testing currently used for the GRE, may begin with a question of medium difficulty followed by harder or easier questions, depending on the test taker's performance. For paper-and- pencil tests in school settings, some institutions, such as the Center for Teaching Excellence at Cornell University, give instructors the advice to present easier questions at the begin- ning of a test (Devine & Yaghlian, n. …

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