You Can’t Believe You Did So Badly?

A common e-mail comment I’ve had from students who didn’t get the mark that they were expecting is often “I can’t believe I did so badly” or words to that effect. “I knew I did well in the exam.” “I answered all of the questions correctly.” All of these are the same and, expect for the rare occasion when we have made an administrative error in assembling the mark, it usually indicates one thing.

The student doesn’t have enough knowledge to be able to assess their level of knowledge.

It would be glib to talk about Dunning-Kruger here, so I suspect it would be even more glib to mention it in passing and not discuss it! The Dunning-Kruger effect is a bias in your thinking that leads people with lower skill level to have an artificially high assessment of their own skills. The converse is that the highly skilled often underrate their ability.

When these students look at their exam scripts or assessments again, as I encourage them to do, the illusory has to confront reality. They see where I drew a red line across a page to indicate that they didn’t answer, say, question 2 at all, which cost them up to 30 marks. They see the places where I asked them to explain an unlabelled diagram, or to give me the detail underneath their broad brush statements. Sometimes, it’s seeing where I’ve written ‘sorry, no’  beside where they’ve answered both true and false to the same question. Without explanation. Then again, some students look at what I’ve said and try to find any possible wriggle room to get extra marks. Where it’s trying it on, it won’t get them anywhere, but I understand it. Where it’s a genuine lack of understanding as to why what they’ve provided is not a complete answer? That’s sadder, because they’re now functioning at a level where, until they advance, they will fail and not understand why they’re failing.

Worse, they may not realise even that they need help, or what kind it will take, to improve their skills. They’re fine – it’s the rest of the world, including me, that’s wrong.

You only have to speak to some students who have been around a little too long, or who left without their degrees, to realise that among those who have genuine problems, but are aware of them and striving to fix them, there are those who have equally genuine problems but assume that it’s nothing they can fix because it’s not their fault.

Does anyone out there have suggestions as to how we can help or approach these students, dealing with the delicate matter of their feelings as well as the cognitive bias? Please share them!

One Comment on “You Can’t Believe You Did So Badly?”

  1. […] your own performance is going to be heavily filtered by your own lack of knowledge. (A reminder of a previous post on this for those who are new here or are vague […]


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