Overestimating Our Own Abilities

This is an interesting article talking about how people reliably overestimate themselves and their abilities.

At my firm, we do a great deal of instruction by synchronous webcast, but many in the firm are suspicious of this medium for learning because of the ease and lure of unobserved multitasking and the effect it has on learning. One reason participants choose to multitask during these courses is the belief that they already know the material well enough.

This has been called the Dunning–Kruger effect, which the Wikipedia helpfully explains this way:

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. do recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.

Experts, on the flip side, tend to underestimate their abilities.

While point four, above, suggests that training helps people recognize their knowledge gaps, it seems reasonable to infer that classes have to confront participants directly with their incompetence, rather than letting them decide. Courses for adults in professional fields don’t always have formal assessments that can expose knowledge gaps. We had a course once where participants reliably complained about a particular module as being too basic (“We know this stuff”), so we added a pre-test and offered to let whole classes test out of the module if the class achieves a certain score collectively. It turned out that on a number of the questions, participants did little better than chance. From that point on, there was no more complaining on evaluations about that module being too basic.



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