Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Monastic Musings: How can I be failing? - Unskilled and Unaware of It

A while back I found this article over at

Monastic Musings: How can I be failing? - Unskilled and Unaware of It In this post, Edith osb writes:
I noticed a surprising phenomenon last semester. Several first-year college students were getting consistently low scores on chapter quizzes - and they did not seem the least bit bothered or concerned about it. They were similarly unperturbed about scores below 60% on the first exam. When they received their mid-semester grade report, though, two of them came to see me, astounded to get such low grades. Their surprise was, of course, surprising to me: how could they possibly think that they were doing well when their quiz and exam scores were in the 50% to 60% range? They claimed that they were unaware that they were doing so poorly, and were somewhat angry that I had not "told them sooner."
A few years ago I had a student come to see me after final grades had been turned in.  The student had failed the class and was in tears, "Is there anything I can do to improve my grade?"  I was stunned, and explained that it was too late. Final Exams were the week before and the semester was over.  I gave 4 midterm exams and a Final Exam, this student had failed every one of them.  How could you not realize that you were failing the class?  Each of those exams was a clue that the student needed to get help.

I have always felt that college students should be treated like responsible adults.  It is their job to pay attention to their grades and get help when they need it. But reading Edith's post, and the article that inspired it, I am reminded of how easy it is to fool yourself.  I was not a particularly good student as an undergrad, and I often reassured myself that I would do better on the next exam - this did not tend to happen.  Realizing that you need help is difficult, and asking for it can be even harder still.

But there may be something else at work in addition to rationalizing and avoiding things that are difficult or uncomfortable.  In "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Kruger and Dunning are interested in how people judge their own abilities. They looked at four different studies where the subject was given a task to complete, and then asked to predict how well they did.  

All of the subjects in all four studies tended to rate their own performance as above average! (How can everyone be above average?)  The subjects with the lowest scores thought that they had done much better that they really did.  The subjects with the best scores still rated themselves as above average, but generally below their actual scores. From this, the authors conclude:
We propose that those with limited knowledge in a
domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken
conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence
robs them of the ability to realize it.
In the case of chemistry students, for example, this means that the students who don't know what they are doing also don't realize that they don't know what they are doing.  It is almost impossibe to correct your mistakes if you don't realize that you are making mistakes in the first place.

Consider American Idol.  If you have ever seen any of the audition shows you can see this in action.  The really awful contestants usually have no idea how bad they are, not a clue.  And they don't understand why the judges don't give them a ticket to Hollywood.  In contrast, a lot of the really good singers are much better at judging themselves reliably.  They know they sing well, but don't tend to over-estimate their ability.  They are often much better singers than they think they are, and seem a little surprised when the judges like their performance enough for a ticket to the next round in Hollywood.

Back to Edith's post.  She and some of the commenters suggest that some High School students - for a number of reasons - may not get trustworthy feedback on their academic skills, and because of that are not able to tell good work from bad.  They haven't learned to tell the difference. Or don't realize that it matters.

I have tended to downplay letter grades during the semester  - many things affect a student's final grade and one bad exam score can be offset by the remaining exams, quizzes and laboratory grades. I can't really predict a student's grade until everything has been graded.  I have also worked from the assumption that the student can tell that a exam grade below 70% means a D, which is close to getting an E (my school doesn't give F's, maybe the letter E is a little less judgemental) and realize that unless they do something about it they will be disappointed with their final grade. 

I think I may change that practice and start putting letter grades on exams and quizzes to help the low performing students learn to recognize unambiguously that they are not doing as well as they would like. I highly recommend reading both Edith's post (and the comments) as well as the original paper itself.


Belle said...

Question: how is a 60% a D? That's an D- here, ready to slide into an F.

I agree, though, with the whole concept of not knowing you don't know. I've discovered my students don't know that reading is essential in university settings, and that learning from reading is normal in that environment, not exceptional. Given the recent testimony from the IL governor, I think there's more to what you're saying than simply grades.

It's a slippery slope, and I'm not sure where we stand on things like quality and rigor. W thought lying was virtuous; Cheney couldn't apologize for shooting his friend in the face; Blog-vich thinks buying/selling offices is routine business. So the students are getting their attitudes from social and cultural leaders: politicians who think it is their job to get re-elected no matter what; athletes who get away with drugs, rape and violence; TV preachers who steal and cheat... the list goes on. Somewhere there's got to be a line between T-ball (where everybody wins) and life.

I think.

Steve W said...

Hey Belle,

My mistake, below 70% is a D here. Nonetheless, most of my chemistry students are Biology majors and the chem is required for their major - and they need a C.

I quite agree about the reading. I worry that my students would rather find something (easy to read) on the internet instead of even trying to read the textbook.

Reading is important and at some point you won't be able to find a watered-down version, or someone who can explain it to you. You need to be able to teach yourself, and the information will be in written form.