I’m a podcast junkie. Since I spend over an hour commuting to and from campus each day, I choose to use that time to listen to smart people teach me about cool stuff. In a recent This American Life episode titled In Defense of Ignorance, I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect and its powerful impact on learning. While I’m not going to necessarily “defend ignorance” here, I am going to discuss how our students’ novice can impact their metacognitive abilities and how important it is to provide strong feedback for improvement.
The Dunning-Kruger effect was first introduced in a 1999 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers (Justin Kruger and David Dunning) performed four studies to examine students’ abilities to self-evaluate their performance on different assessments. After taking a test on logical reasoning, grammar or humor, participants were asked to assess their overall test score and to rate their performance against those of their peers. Across the study, students who performed in the bottom quartile of the survey group consistently perceived their test score and performance relative to their peers as far greater than they actually performed. As the authors write, “participants in general overestimated their ability with those in the bottom quartile demonstrating the greatest miscalibration” (p. 1125).
To some, the presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect may be surprising or eye opening. For those of us who have been teaching for a while, however, we can probably recognize this phenomenon in practice. We’ve all encountered students who thought they’ve done really well on exam before confronting the stark reality of a low grade being handed to them. Charles Darwin captures it best in The Descent of Man when he writes, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Students don’t always know what they don’t know.
That’s why using formative assessments and providing feedback is so important. In the Kruger and Dunning’s study, they discuss that the negative feedback from grades as offering little support for participants’ growth. Kruger and Dunning write, “Although our analysis suggests that incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performances themselves, one would have thought negative feedback would have been inevitable at some point in their academic career” (p. 1131). But that’s not how teaching and learning should work. As educators, we need to help our students develop the metacognitive abilities to self-assess their knowledge base and performance. We have to help students better recognize their areas of strength and weakness and provide feedback to close the gaps in their performance. As novices in our content area, they will not have the ability to readily identify what they know from what they don’t know. By offering ongoing formative assessment, however, we can provide those developmental markers that can help guide students and have them better overcome the gaps in their learning. While the Dunning and Kruger article identifies individuals as “ignorant” or “incompetent,” I’d prefer to view them as “learners” and provide the necessary feedback and supports to help them be successful in my classroom.