Ignorance of the Ignorant

Shari Wilson ("Ignorance of the Ignorant", Inside Higher Ed) writes about students' incompetence in judging their performance level:

My undergraduate students can’t accurately predict their academic performance or skill levels. Earlier in the semester, a writing assignment on study styles revealed that 14 percent of my undergraduate English composition students considered themselves “overachievers.” Not one of those students was receiving an A in my course by midterm. Fifty percent were receiving a C, another third was receiving B’s and the remainder had earned failing grades by midterm. One student wrote, “overachievers like myself began a long time ago.” She received a 70 percent on her first paper and a low C at midterm.


Dozens of colleagues have told me that their undergraduates simply do not have the tools to criticize and evaluate their own work-much less predict how well they will do on assignments. What’s behind this great drop in ability to assess performance?

What are the causes? According to Wilson, they are many, including low high school standards, helicopter parenting, multi-tasking with email and the internet while studying, and so on. Note that higher ed assumes that (1) the purpose of public schools is to prepare students for college, (2) none of this is higher ed's fault, and (3) the students today aren't as good as those yesterday.

Such simple simplifying seems less than satisfying in understanding a phenomenon impacted by a variety of influences. One influence not mentioned is, I believe, the greater expectations of professors and universities over time. Biology courses, for instance, continually increase the amount of information to be learned in the same amount of time. (Just compare textbooks between today and 30 years ago for the same course.) At the University of Texas at Austin, the biology department finally woke up (in the 90s?) and changed a 3-credit microbiology course to three 2-credit courses, doubling the amount of time needed for the "same" material. The 2-credit course I took was still jam packed with information.

Being embedded in the system, professors are often unaware that they are requiring more than was required of them as undergraduates because changes increment slowly over the years. It's also likely that their memory has reconstructed their memories of when they were undergraduates in line with their own academic cultural expectations in a manner similar to Bartlett's experiment in having British citizens recount a Native American story "The War of the Ghosts":

Bartlett's readers (typically unconsciously) made the story more orderly and coherent within their own cultural framework.

I don't doubt that there are differences in student populations. My students are surprised that I expect 2-3 hours of outside study for every one hour of class time. Wilson doesn't simply bemoan the situation, however. She lays out ways to improve our instruction:

As an instructor of undergraduate core classes, however, I realize that my responsibility does not stop at content. I cannot simply list assessment as a course objective and then feign ignorance when my students show me again and again that they cannot predict their own performance. Strategies — not only for instruction, but also for exercises and assessment — are integral in setting my students on the right path for the remainder of their college careers. To accomplish this, I realize that I will need to work much, much harder to help my undergraduates understand assignments and expectations, rubrics and assessments, in-class grades and the prediction of success.

Some is already in place. Like many English composition instructors, I do instill a peer-editing component to my writing courses — not only to help students view writing as a process — but to give them some tools and much-needed experience in evaluating student work. I provide instruction in how to apply rubrics to student work and often use past student work as “models.” Some students are glad for the transparency of my courses; with a detailed 16-week course outline given out at the first class, they can start relating course objectives to specific assignments throughout the semester. Lessons scaffold one on another; assessment follows thorough instruction. Still, there is much to be done. It’s clear that I need to develop more tools to help my students learn to assess their own work and predict academic performance more accurately.

Along with the interaction of peer-editing, having much of their work online can aid in seeing, comparing, and contrasting their own work with others. In the past, I had my students use Blogger.com. This semester, I moved to Bloglines. Posting and reading posts in one place makes it easier for them to become more aware of how well they are doing. In addition, they now have access to all comments made on others' posts, unlike with Blogger, so that the amount of reading interaction has increased compared to previous semesters. One key to accurate self-assessment is being exposed to what one's peers are doing, an exposure facilitated by blogging.