Student Assessment of Their Experience, Not Their Learning

Educational methodologies often emphasize the value of self-reflection and assessment among learners. However, when it comes to evaluating their own academic progress, college students might not be the most dependable judges. In his 2005 book, Self-insight:  Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself, David Dunning noted that individuals with limited knowledge or competence in a domain are ill-equipped to accurately assess their own performance or understanding. This phenomenon, often described as the Dunning-Kruger effect, suggests caution in how we approach student self-assessment in educational contexts, especially regarding learning outcomes.

Dunning’s work on cognitive biases highlights a critical paradox in self-evaluation: the least competent individuals tend to overestimate their performance due to a lack of understanding of what constitutes excellence, while the most competent are prone to underestimate their achievements, driven by their acute awareness of the ideal standards (Kruger and Dunning 1999). Applied to the context of academic learning when students are asked to gauge their own learning outcomes, we should expect similar discrepancies.

The discrepancy in self-assessment accuracy between the most and least competent students underscores the unreliability of self-evaluations in accurately measuring learning outcomes. The least competent students often fail to grasp the extent of their knowledge gaps, leading to inflated self-assessments. This misperception is not born out of overconfidence per se but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes proficient performance.

Conversely, the most competent individuals, equipped with a broader and more nuanced understanding of the subject matter, tend to set higher benchmarks for themselves. This heightened awareness often results in these individuals perceiving their performance as falling short of their ideal standards, leading them to underestimate their actual competence and learning achievements.

This bidirectional misjudgment—overestimation by the least competent and underestimation by the most competent—highlights the limitations of relying on student self-assessments to gauge learning outcomes. Self-reflection on subjective experiences in a classroom setting is undeniably valuable. It provides educators with essential feedback on teaching methods, course engagement, and the overall learning environment from the student’s perspective. But evaluating whether course learning objectives have been met should be based on assessment methods that can more objectively measure student learning and mitigate the biases inherent in self-evaluation.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134.