October 8th, 2018

Disrupting Illusions of Fluency


illusions of fluency

No matter the academic discipline, course level, or time of day, the last five minutes of class often present instructors with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is maintaining students’ interest. Disrupting “illusions of fluency” is the opportunity. The term refers to misjudging the depth of what one knows (Carey 2015). Further, it describes the belief that a mastery over something has been achieved, when actually it has not (Lang 2016). The final class minutes can be best spent constructively assessing levels of student learning and understanding of course material.

When students erroneously assume that they completely understand a topic, they forgo additional study to strengthen their understanding of course material. The One-Minute Paper, the Class Wrapper, and the Muddiest Point reflection are examples of assessments that can be deployed before class officially ends to counter this. The goal is to assess what students learned and what remains unclear, without subjecting them to high-stakes testing. The following examples foster an environment in which teaching and learning improvements are more deliberate for the instructor and students.

The Power of Reflections in Math Courses

Mathematics is a critical link in the STEM curriculum. It is imperative that students develop more than cursory competencies in math courses due to the rigors of higher level classes across the curriculum. Metacognition strategies, which make students aware of their own learning, have utility for students with weak math foundations, poor study habits, and time management issues.

The Class Wrapper is one useful strategy. Students are asked to respond to three prompts regarding mathematical concepts and processes: the most understood topic; the topic needing more clarity; and the most confusing topic. The assignment is administered during the last five minutes of class. The instructor collects and later reviews students’ responses, organizes them according to related concepts, and then reinforces the topics during the next class session.

The Class Wrapper strategy helps students feel empowered, because their concerns regarding course materials have been addressed. Since students are asked to be descriptive in their responses, there are concerted efforts to be more reflective in explaining not only what they didn’t understand, but also which topics they felt comfortable with. The Class Wrapper promotes self-directed learning, as well as a growth mindset, since students are cognitively investing in their learning. Also, non-STEM majors are especially receptive to the assignment.

But, I Teach Online!

Online courses generally lack the culminating five minutes that traditional classes have. The days leading up to assessments in distance education courses, nevertheless, present opportunities for disrupting illusions of fluency with activities like Final Five quizzes and discussions. Class Wrappers may seem out of place in online courses, which often have no specific meeting times.

The asynchronous nature of distance learning also means discussions, quizzes, and tests are available for several days rather than minutes or hours.

Vonderwell and Boboc note the importance of adjusting assessments to the attributes of distance instruction. The authors highlight the value of adapting formative evaluations, which are designed to capture useful information for shaping instruction to meet students’ needs (Vonderwell and Boboc, 22-23). When offered as surveys, short reflection papers, or journal entries, activities like the One-Minute Paper and Muddiest Point reflections are relevant metacognitive exercises for students in online classes. One additional strategy for adjusting formative assessment to the online timesframe entails focusing on the final five days before a major assessment with activities that capture their understanding and point out areas of confusion. Final Five activities can be adjusted according to term length. The overall objective is allowing time for reflection and response.

Five Minutes Outside the Classroom

An alternative to using the Muddiest Point reflection in class is utilizing a learning management platform such as Brightspace, Canvas, Moodle, or Blackboard. Face-to-face instructors often use these systems to house supplemental course materials, track student progress, and administer tests and other assignments. Instructors can allow students to submit unclear aspects of lectures and discussions anonymously or may opt to have classmates view responses. Allowing students to view other online posts may be encouraging and confidence building. Some will discover they are not alone in needing clarification about specific topics covered in class, especially if they are shy.

An online discussion board can also be assigned for students in face-to-face classes to post topics needing additional clarification. This exercise encourages students to work together by responding to each other’s comments and helping clarify the muddiest points. The course instructor must monitor the discussions and participate as necessary. Topics can be reviewed in subsequent classes, and other resources can be posted online. Angelo and Cross caution that the Muddiest Point should be used with discretion since it can lead to an emphasis on the negative. To counter this, encourage students to provide feedback on what they also understood.

Finally, these easy to administer assessments are not “one size fits all” strategies. Therefore, modify them based on student needs and individual classroom experiences. When we take opportunities to connect with students through these types of activities, we engage them as valid, reliable information sources capable of evaluating their own comprehension and our teaching; illusions of fluency are disrupted, and learning is enhanced.



Angelo, Thomas, A,. and Cross, K. Patricia. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd. Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Random House, 2014.

Lang, James M. “Small Changes in Teaching: The Last 5 Minutes of Class.” The Chronicle of Higher Education vol. 62, no. 29 (April 1, 2016).

Vonderwell, Selma Koc, and Marius Boboc. “Promoting Formative Assessment in Online Teaching and Learning,” TechTrends 57, no. 4 (July/August 2013): 22-27.



Shreyas Desai is Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Kenja McCray is Associate Professor of History, and Curtis L. Todd is Professor of Social Work. They teach at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.