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Unskilled and Unaware: How do you self-assess when you don’t know?

August 4, 2012

Teacher Musings:

I recently read an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that I first heard about through a blog post (which I now can’t find – sorry!)  The article is entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.  (Kruger and Dunning, 1999).  Just as the title says, the researchers performed a study to investigate the already accepted theory the people who are incompetent in a domain tend to inflate their self-assessment of their performance in that domain.  Basically, if you are bad at something you are more likely to think you perform adequately, or well, than someone who is mediocre or good in the same domain.  The authors predicted that “a lack of metacognitive skills may underlie this deficiency” and carried out four studies which suggest that

a) incompetent individuals do indeed dramatically overestimate their ability and performance

b) these same individuals are unable to recognize competence when they see it (which is seen as evidence of a lack of metacognitive skills).  This also means that these incompetent individuals are less able than others to take advantage of social comparison as a tool for feedback and improvement (more on this later)

c) The incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings if they are made more competent in the domain.

While I enjoyed reading about the actual studies and methodologies, I found myself making copious notes and writing lots of stars and exclamation points in the margins at the end of the piece where they talk about the implications of the study.  Specifically, in the section entitled Incompetence and the Failure of Feedback the author’s discussed some points that made me think about some of my own teaching practices, and reconsider what it really will take to make my students “competent” readers and writers.

This authors say that “one puzzling aspect of our results is how the incompetent fail, through life experiences, to learn that they are unskilled . . . Although our analysis suggests that incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performance themselves, one would have thought negative feedback [in response to logical reasoning and grammar, the two domains that the studies used] would have been inevitable at some point in their academic career.  So why had they not learned?”

I have definitely asked myself that last question time and time again as student’s enter my class lacking basic writing skills (the seeming inability to compose a complete sentence) and basic reading comprehension skills when asked to read grade-level texts.  One way I have tried to respond to these lack of skills by to providing students with exemplar after exemplar of good writing and strong use of reading strategies through mentor texts, think-alouds and other instructional strategies.  While I have seem some good come out of this, especially with students who have good “school” skills and who are only a bit below grade level, I haven’t seen my weakest readers and writers benefit from these instructional strategies as much as I would like.  Now, I am wondering if my reliance on exemplars and models is part of the problem.  This research points out that people who are “incompetent” (i.e. the lowest skilled of a group) don’t have the metacognitive skills (in that domain) necessary to learn from a variety of examples of strong and weak work in the domain.  In one of the studies the researchers asked participants to score several pieces of work from other participants, and the least competent participants were also the least competent scorers.  While this may seem like an obvious conclusion to some folks, it left me thinking about the many, many times I have given students a range of writing pieces, some that are strong and some that are weak, and asked them to rank them and explain their ranking.  I have done this in several ways, with several different goals, such as guiding the class to develop rubrics they would have ownership of and pushing students to see and name the qualities of good writing.  However, based on this research, I think that these exercises may not be so useful.  I think I now understand why so many of my students often rank a piece of writing as “best” because it is simply the longest.  If they do not have a deep understanding of what good writing is and how to produce it (basically, writing competence) than they are lacking the metacognitive ability to recognize and learn from good writing when they see it.  Therefore, simply putting pieces of writing in front of them and asking them to “discover” the qualities of good writing is basically fruitless.

This leaves me in a conundrum.  If the best way to improve one’s ability to learn from examples is to become competent in a domain in the first place, we are back to square one.  Developing competent readers and writers has been my passion, my goal and my focus for my eight years of teaching, but I still don’t have a clear answer as to what, exactly, to do to make every student in front of me as strong a reader and writer as they need to be.  So, telling me to just “make them competent” doesn’t really help.

However, based on the discussion at the end of this article, I do have two new paths to explore that I think might be  helpful in improving my student’s skills, and will certainly be more helpful than my many “exemplar” activities that I mentioned above.  The first path is the focus on direct instruction.  When the researchers had to improve a group’s competence in order to test their hypothesis that increased competence would lead to increased metacognitive ability, they provided the group direct instruction.  I tend to shy away from direct instruction because I don’t want to be too didactic, but this research was a reminder that my students who struggle the may also benefit the most from specific, concrete and direct instruction about how to read and write.  This direct instruction doesn’t have to be a lecture though!  This year I increased the time I spent conferencing with students, and I found that direct, specific instruction and modeling around how to do something was often a very productive way for students to learn in these one-on-one or small group conferences.

The second path to explore more is direct feedback.  First, a little background.  When I first started teaching I assigned an essay for students, which some of them wrote and turned into me.  I went to grade the essay and I was appalled.  Not only were the essays mostly underdeveloped, but they were also riddled with spelling and grammar errors, some of which made them incomprehensible.  Now, a lot of these problems (especially with development) were related to the five-paragraph essay form.  However, the errors in spelling and grammar overwhelmed me completely.  These were skills that I really didn’t know how to teach, didn’t even know how I had learned them, and I didn’t know how to give students feedback on them without simply covering their paper in red (or green, or purple) pen.  So, I decided to just pick one aspect of their writing to focus my corrections on.

I told every student to stop using contractions and to spell out the words instead.

I often tell this story to new teachers to highlight my own incompetence when I started teaching, and to point out the mistakes we make when we are overwhelmed with the task we are charged with.  This was not only a stupid thing to focus on, but it also wasn’t something that actually needed to be corrected.  What this story also highlights is some of the problems that teachers face when giving feedback.  Part of what led me to pick such a silly thing to focus on was my fear of discouraging my students with lots of negative feedback, especially on essays that we had called “final drafts.”  The root of the problem wasn’t simply that I picked the wrong grammar issue to focus on.  The root of the problem was that I didn’t have a good way to give students the direct, if sometimes painful, feedback they needed in a way that would help them grow and improve.

Well, I certainly haven’t got the whole issue of feedback figured out, but I have developed some systems and tools for getting students to write, and revise multiple drafts, which has given me space to give students direct and through feedback that students are then expected to respond to.  What I really don’t want is my students to get to college (or even 11th or 12th grade) and have them react with shock and surprise when their professor/teacher tells them that their use of conventions in writing is unacceptable.  If a student struggles with grammar and spelling (or reading, or any other important literacy skill) my feedback should make them aware of that before they leave my class and that feedback should help them improve.  The authors of the research paper say that “even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred.”  This is what my feedback needs to provide my students – not only an awareness of their shortcomings (which is vital) but also an understanding of what lead to their failure and what they can do to improve.

Yummy Stuff:

Two weeks ago we welcomed a fourth member to our family – our little baby girl!  Since then we (my husband and I) have been pretty busy taking care of both kids and trying to catch up on sleep ourselves.  Our dinners have either involved heating up leftovers from friends or quick dinners we can throw together.  One of my favorite quick dinners is Thai red curry that comes together with curry paste, coconut milk and whatever veggies you have on hand!

Quick Thai Red Curry

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


1 TB canola or vegetable oil (or peanut oil)
1 block (12-14oz) of tofu
2-3 cups of chopped veggies (for a recent dinner I chopped up 1 bell pepper, 2 small carrots and 1 head of swiss chard)
1-2 TB of curry paste (the amount is based on your spice preference.  I love things spicy and would put in 2 TB if I could, but my husband likes it a bit more on the mild side.  We compromise with 1 heaping TB)
1 can of coconut milk (regular or light)


1) Drain the tofu and press it for 15-30 minutes.  This will remove some of the water and help the tofu soak up more flavor.  I put it on a plate, then put another plate on top of it, and then put a few large cans of tomatoes on top of that and let it sit for a while.  While the tofu is being pressed, chop up the veggies.

2) Pour the excess water off the tofu plate and then cut the tofu into 1 inch  square pieces.

3) Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet on medium heat.  Put the tofu in the skillet, and let it cook until the side in the pan is brown (about 3-6 minutes).  Flip the tofu to get another side and do the same.  Continue this until the tofu is browned to your liking.  I usually cook the tofu for about 15 minutes total just to get it mostly browned, which makes it a bit more chewy.

4) Turn the heat to medium-high and add the veggies (but not the greens yet, if you are using greens) and stir-fry them until they are to your liking.  The longer you cook them the softer they get.  I stir fry carrots and peppers (and broccoli, which I also sometimes use) for about 5 minutes.

5) Push the veggies and tofu off to the side of the pan, and then put in the curry paste.  Mash it around in the hot pan for about 30 seconds, then pour in the coconut milk.  Stir the paste into the coconut milk until it is incorporated, and then mix everything up with the veggies and tofu.

6) Put in the greens (if using), turn heat down to medium-low and cover for 3-6 minutes, or until greens are wilted.  This step also lets the tofu and veggies absorb some of the curry flavor.  Stir occasionally, and give it one last good mixing before serving.  Serve over rice or quinoa.

  1. I love red thai curry! Congrats on your new baby.

    • Thank you so much! More posts will follow soon once I get a bit more sleep 😉

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