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Knowing what your supposed to know: Problems with self-assessment

March 30, 2010

(Hear author read this post)

Most teachers want their students to become autonomous learners.  Part of this autonomy is an ability to self-assess, or to know when you have learned something & when you need more time/help.  Assessment requires comparison between a current state and a desired state of understanding.  However, in order to self-assess, students must be able to identify their own current state as well as their desired state.  This is difficult thinking.  This research notes that students must have some understanding of a domain in order to be able to tackle the self-assessment challenge.  That is, you must know something in order to know how much you know.  Or, if you know nothing, you tend to overstate what you know.

Research Summary:

Kruger and Dunning (1999) set up four research designs to investigate students self assessment abilities.  Each of the investigations studied how participants’ self assessment of performance compared to their actual performance.  In each of the investigations the participants who scored in the top quartile more accurately self assessed than those participants who scored in the bottom quartile.  Those who scored in the bottom quartile overestimated their performance greatly.  Also, those participants in the bottom quartile did not benefit from seeing how their peers answered questions.  They were truly incompetent and unaware.

In one of the studies, the participants were asked to take a logic test, then self-assess their performance.  After this initial self-assessment the participants received some basic instruction via a self-directed packet on logic.  Then the participants were asked to re-evaluate their original performance.  After the “instruction” the participants ability to self-assess increased significantly.  By providing even some basic competence, the students metacognitive abilities improved.

Classroom implications:

I admittedly struggled to consider how this research might inform classroom practice.  Importantly, this research highlights the need for teachers to explicitly encourage students to develop metacognitive abilities by consistently asking students to think about how their ideas have changed over time.  One thing I have tried in class is making lists of ideas regarding a topic and taking a digital picture of the initial ideas.  Later, I ask students to critique and revise their initial lists after some instruction.  Then I encourage students to think about their own learning by asking questions like, “What things caused your ideas to change?” or “Why do you think you originally thought the way you did?”

This research further illustrates the need to scaffold student thinking.  Metacognition is a very abstract and difficult task.  We must first provide students with experiences on which they can reflect.  If we ask students to complete a task (self-assess), but have not given them the tools (basic competence) needed to accomplish the task, the students are likely to fail.  Instead, we must carefully build student understanding and thinking abilities over time.  If we do not lay the groundwork through concrete experiences we cannot expect the higher order thinking to be fruitful.

Questions to ponder:

  • Sometimes our rhetoric around student-directed learning places too much emphasis on students “discovering” knowledge.  How does this research highlight the vital role teachers have?
  • How can we help students recognize their own incompetence in an area even without basic understanding?


Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 12:09 pm

    I don’t like the word incompetence 😉 It’s the right word, just usually used with such negative connotations.

    How can we help students recognize what they need to know in an area even without basic understanding?

    I think real world assignments and real world rejection work wonders to get kids mind pumping to question what they need to know and if what they know will work in one situation will work in a slightly different one.

    For example, in one of my kids podcasts they might go into an interview and get killed because they were not prepared with certain questions or info. The next interview they come in prepared, or they will seek out advice on what they should know.

    Taking kids out of a natural learning environment forces us to “get” kids to recognize when they don’t know something. In our un-natural school environments there is always an end to learning. Assessment signals the end of one unit of learning and the beginning of the next. If you received a “B” then you are done learning. In a natural learning environment you are always seeking “more” until you get to a point in which you consider yourself to be successful-until you have what you need.

    Examples that probably simplify this too much:
    I am always seeking to be a better teacher. I have yet to consider myself successful so I will continue to learn. I just also simply need to continue to improve so I can keep my job.

    I stopped learning how to play the guitar. I needed to know how to play some basic chords to use in class. I taught myself and once I had learned enough chords to use for classroom purposes I stopped. I just don’t have a need to know any more.

    So without kids being put into a real world situation, they won’t know. No book, worksheet, simulation, or teacher’s grades will fully let them know that they have to do more. It will always coming across not as needing to know what they are “incompetent” in, but simply what they need to do to get a certain grade.

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