SAGE Musings: The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Metacognition

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published May 2, 2019 11:58am

The importance, and power, of teaching our students metacognitive skills is not a new idea for anyone involved in the SAGE 2YC project. Cohort 1 faculty Change Agents heard Saundra Macguire talk about this at our June 2016 workshop, and cohort 2 faculty Change Agents learned about it in our Fall 2017 workshop. Today's Musing focuses on the Dunning-Kruger Effect and metacognitive skills, which include self-regulated learning.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is one of my favorite psychological phenomena related to learning. It is described in one of my favorite journal articles, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). As Kruger and Dunning (1999) wrote in their abstract, "Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd." Dunning and Kruger found that improving study participants' skills helped them to narrow the gap between their perceived skill level and their actual skill level. I speculate that improving students' metacognitive skills might also be a step in that direction.

Kruger and Dunning argue that "the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one's own or anyone else's" (1999, p. 1121). They go on to point out that psychologists relate the inability to assess one's own skill level to metacognition. This idea was not new at the time; the authors cite research literature in a number of domains confirming this correlation. What Kruger and Dunning did that previous researchers had not was to examine the causal relationship between lack of skill at a task and weak metacognitive skills. They hypothesized that people incompetent at a particular skill would overestimate their skill, would fail to recognize competence when they saw it, would thus be unable to evaluate their own skill by comparing their work to that of others, and would gain metacognitive insights into their own performance as they gained competence at the skill (Kruger and Dunning, 1999, p. 1122).

What Kruger and Dunning found, in a series of four experiments, confirmed their hypotheses. In all four studies, study participants who scored in the bottom quartile estimated their own skills to be above average. In general, students in the bottom two quartiles in terms of performance over-estimated their skills, with the least competent students over-estimating the most, while students in the top quartile slightly under-estimated their skills. The graphs of perceived test scores vs. actual test scores are quite eye-opening. Moreover, their second and third experiments showed that students who lack competence in a skill also lack the metacognitive ability to assess competence at that skill, in themselves or in someone else. Finally, in their fourth experiment, the authors tested the hypothesis that gaining competence in a skill also promotes the growth of metacognition in that realm. In this experiment, training students in logical reasoning skills improved both their logical reasoning and their ability to estimate their logical reasoning skill level accurately. "Study 4 showed that improving participants' metacognitive skills also improved the accuracy of their self-appraisals" (Kruger and Dunning, 1999, p. 1131).

There are many strategies instructors can use to help students build their metacognitive skills. These include reflective active learning strategies such as think-pair-share, retrieval practice, making concept maps, reading reflections, and exam wrappers. These strategies actively engage learners in reflecting on what they are learning, organizing new concepts into a framework, and putting what they are learning into their own words. Moreover, each of these activities includes an opportunity for students to self-assess their understanding, thus providing a real-time check on their estimation of their competence. Without metacognitive skills, we can expect students to be susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. However, by building students' metacognitive skills, we may be able to help them make more accurate assessments of their learning.

Let me just add in closing that I encourage you to take this information and use it with empathy. We are ALL prone to the Dunning-Kruger Effect when we are incompetent at a task (Kruger and Dunning, 1999), and we are all incompetent at many tasks.


Kruger, Justin and David Dunning (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, Vol. 77, No. 6., pp. 1121-1134.

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