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