Monday, October 20, 2008

Judging one's own competence, or Yikes!

We've identified and diagnosed the illusion of understanding in the past: that students often presume they have mastered a body of knowledge when in fact their understanding of it is superficial at beast.

I was therefore intrigued by some of the research findings about our ability to judge our own competence discussed in this Salon article:

Unfortunately, cognitive science offers some fairly sobering observations about our ability to judge ourselves and others.

Perhaps the single academic study most germane to the present election is the 1999 psychology paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The two Cornell psychologists began with the following assumptions.
  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
To put their theories to the test, the psychologists asked a group of Cornell undergraduates to undergo a series of self-assessments, including tests of logical reasoning taken from a Law School Admissions Test preparation guide. Prior to being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate how they thought they would fare in comparison with the others taking the tests.

On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile, revealing that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat. But those in the bottom 25 percent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest extent. For example, in the logical reasoning section, individuals that scored in the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile, and that their overall scores would be in the 62nd percentile. The authors point out that the problem was not primarily underestimating how others had done; those in the bottom quartile overestimated the number of their correct answers by nearly 50 percent. Similarly, after seeing the answers of the best performers -- those in the top quartile -- those in the bottom quartile continued to believe that they had performed well.

The converse also bears repeating. Despite the fact that students in the top quartile fairly accurately estimated how well they did, they also tended to overestimate the performance of others. In short, smart people tend to believe that everyone else "gets it." Incompetent people display both an increasing tendency to overestimate their cognitive abilities and a belief that they are smarter than the majority of those demonstrably sharper.
Boy does this shed light on the challenges of teaching! I assume ol' Socrates was right: You can't teach what you don't know. So here we instructors are (and assuming we conform to the study's findings) "getting it" and assuming others do as well, while many of those who don't get it — our students — think they do even in the face of evidence to the contrary. And the less competent the student is, the more likely they are to exaggerate their competence.

So: Is the enterprise of teaching doomed?


  1. I haven't searched around for the details of the study, but I've come across it before and something definitional always struck me as wrong about it.

    In particular, it seems to me that the very essence of incompetence is overestimating one's skill, not recognizing real skill in others, and taking both of these to an extreme. In other words, incompetence at an activity is one's complete lack of understanding of the standards of excellence in an activity rather than a lack of knowledge.

    So it is scary, but I'm not sure it's scarier than the fact that there are incompetent individuals out there. That said, any solution has to address what seems to me to be the root of the problem: that the appearance of competence is seen much more favorably in grad programs than the appearance of struggle that inevitably goes along with developing competence.

    "Fake it 'til you make it" behavior is very highly rewarded compared to "Don't fake it if you don't know it yet" behavior. That can't be healthy.

  2. What strikes me is how easily the question of defining competence is not being addressed. If the negative definition offered is acccepted, insofar as lacking the standards of excellence, then what are the standards of excellence in philosophy? Is it good writing? But, I believe the argument can be made that Wittgenstein was not anywhere near the writer Russell was; so, was Russell the more competent philospher? Presumably, the standards of excellence were inculcated by those philosophers deemed competent and those deemed competent were thought to have mastered the standards of excellence. It seems circular if competence is defined by standards of excellence and possession of the standards of excellence are what makes a person competent.

    I think what is most revealing about the study is that it shows us that there are probably incompetent (by their definition) teachers in philosophy, and it forces us to consider notions of our own competence.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!