One day, I was reviewing with a high school student for a final exam in history. It was rough going; the material was detailed and complex and this young man’s grasp of both the facts and the concepts was poor.
We plowed on for two solid hours, and then he turned to me and floored me with this question: “OK, now, do you think I know this stuff?”
Truly, isn’t that a remarkable thing to ask? This young man couldn’t tell for himself whether or not the hard mental work he had just done had resulted in “knowing.”
But what, indeed, does “knowing” feel like? How do any of us know whether or not we know?
And in all candor, no, I didn’t believe he “knew” the material, though I definitely felt he had improved, and I told him so. (And I can also report that this same student continued to work hard in this difficult history class; he never made As, but I do feel he learned a great deal and I’m glad he never switched down into an easier class).
And, at least this student was self-aware enough to doubt his understanding, a good sign that he did, in fact, acquire some knowledge. The truly clueless, in ironic contrast, wouldn’t even think to wonder, because they tend to be quite secure that they’ve got it knocked!
Psychologists call this The Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which ignorant people often have great confidence in their “knowledge,” whereas better-informed people tend to doubt themselves. This counter-intuitive effect actually does make sense: When a person knows little about a subject, the subject seems so simple! Then, as the person learns more, she begins to glimpse the depth and complexity and becomes less sure of her expertise.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the stuff of both comedy and tragedy. Next time you click on the news to see a politician ranting in simplistic terms about some highly nuanced issue he clearly knows nothing about, or observe an outsider blithely stepping into a complex situation to “solve” it, you are seeing the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.
The D-K Effect helps explain those sweeping generalizations adolescents are prone to. When a student declares, for example, that “People who live in tsunami areas should just move somewhere else,” I realize that she simply doesn’t know very much about this issue, and so we talk about it and do some research together so as to gain a more faceted understanding.
It also explains why students are so bad at telling whether or not they’re ready for tests, or whether their writing is good enough to hand in. And the weaker the student, the poorer is their perspective on their own performance and readiness.
This is why:
- Students should NOT rely on their gut feelings to decide they are ready for a test; they need to actually do a practice test and find out.
- Students need adults to read and respond to their writing. Kids are very poor self-editors and have a lot of trouble telling if their writing is “good,” or “makes sense.”
- Adults should be specific. “This sentence is unclear,” “this word doesn’t seem to fit,” “these two ideas don’t connect,” “you need some more facts to back up your claim,” etc.
- Students need plenty of talk-time with parents and other adults, about current events, science, and history.
- Students need to learn tons of facts about how the world works and what happened when, and why, and how. (History and science are extremely important subjects!)
- Students need to read from multiple sources when they do research, so as to be confronted with more than one viewpoint. Cutting and pasting from the Internet gets papers written quickly but does not grow critical thinking skills.
Here are two great Annie Murphy Paul articles with more perspective on helping students “know what they know” :