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Overcoming the Problem of Confidence Mixed with Ignorance

by on December 09, 2019 4:30 AM


It’s a frequent conversation with university faculty. Students are given an assignment. Some of them do the support readings. Most of them read the directions. A few of them will put extra effort into the assignment, but many will simply check off the boxes and turn it in.   

Inevitably, some of the latter will come into office hours to complain that they earned a C on the assignment.  “But I did what was asked in the assignment” they complain.   

If only I could pull out the A+ assignment submitted by the student who obviously spent extra time, effort and energy into submitting a paper or project that demonstrates “outstanding” work. If only privacy laws didn’t prevent me from putting both projects side by side, so the C student could see what an A paper from a peer this very semester looks like.  

Average. When we take a group of numbers, to find the average we add them up and then divide by how many there were. It gives us a middle starting point in which to compare the other numbers. With humans, it works kind of the same way. Depending on the characteristic or variable that we are examining, we know that most of us will fall somewhere in the middle.

For example, we know that there are some really tall people and there are some really short people. When we pull us all together, measure our height and then divide by how many of us there are, most of us will fall pretty close to the average or to the middle.

Sadly, no one wants to be told they are average. From my experience, university students in today’s culture really don’t like to be assigned an average grade for a paper. 

As my colleagues and I were talking about grade inflation, the trophy generation, varying standards for performances in high schools, the increasing demand for rubrics for assignments and this A for Average culture, one of my colleagues said, “and don’t forget the Dunning-Kruger effect.”  Wait, what? “The Dunning-Kruger effect,” she said. “The cognitive bias that looks at how much we know and our confidence about our understanding.”

It turns out that people who only know a little about something tend to overestimate their understanding and abilities, while those who know a lot tend to downplay their expertise. 

In 1999, researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests in a variety of settings and found some interesting results. It turns out that people who don’t know something or who are incompetent at a task or a job are often unable to see that incompetence.  They rate themselves with a bias. From people assessing their driving skills to chess players, the folks on the low end of the ability scale frequently said their skills were above average. In one study, engineers at a large engineering firm, some of whom were the lowest rated performers by their supervisors, often said that their job performance was “above average.”

Conversely, the really good drivers or chess players or engineers (e.g. people that we might call experts) tended to underestimate their skills and abilities. Dunning and Kruger suggested that by having greater awareness of the complexity and volumes of information related to a task or subject matter, those on the higher end of the scale had a more realistic understanding of their knowledge or abilities.

To quote Socrates, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

It explains why that relative at the holidays who read a few internet pages or the blowhards on the 24-hour news channels think that by knowing a little, they know a whole lot. They rant on and on, confident in their little bit of knowledge. As most of us have learned, it is almost impossible to introduce new or conflicting information to the confident know-it-all.

Confidence in ourselves is usually not a bad thing. Confidence mixed with ignorance is a problem.

The Dunning-Kruger effect may explain why it is most often the A student who comes in for office hours to find out how they can do better next time and what dropped their grade to a 94% instead of a 100%.   The student who earned the C often just chalks it up to unfair guidelines or a subjective assessment and then rates the teacher as “unfair” in the end-of-semester teacher evaluations.   

The good news is that humans can learn. Dunning and Kruger and others have found that if people are open to it, training in the subject area and/or in how to accurately measure performance has an impact. People who receive training often reflect back on past self-assessments and understand how much they didn’t know or where their decisions were wrong.  Often I will ask the C student, “Do you think this is an outstanding paper? Is this a paper that is among the top 5% or 10% in the class?” They usually admit that it isn’t which opens a conversation about how to get to that next level.

In a sense, university faculty are just kicking the can down the road to the student or graduate’s first job when they have to figure out how much effort and energy needs to go into a project to be considered an “outstanding” performance. Rubrics seem to have a lack of transferability to the work setting. It isn’t often that a supervisor will provide an employee with a range of end results when assigning a project or task and then align those results with corresponding performance ratings. In the end, cognitive bias will likely mean that those who don’t put in the work or who perform at the average or below average level will think they are performing above average anyway.

British philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell said this of what we have come to know as the Dunning Kruger effect: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people are so full of doubts.” 



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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