The Truth About Overconfident Students

"Are you ready for your test?" we ask them.

"Sure are!" they say. "I went back over everything, and I feel really ready!"

And then they flunk it. What happened?! Why didn't their studying work?

The short answer is it is very easy to be overconfident. (Especially in the transition from elementary school as material becomes much more challenging.) There are two causes for this that I've noticed in my time as a teacher.

The first is the illusion of understanding that comes from incomplete knowledge. This is known as the Dunning -Kruger Effect. The short version is that people can be sorted into three groups when it comes to understanding a given topic:

People with very little knowledge of the topic who KNOW they are ignorant.

  1. People with very little knowledge of the topic who are UNAWARE of their own ignorance.

  2. People who know a lot about the topic.

An important feature of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that there is a strong correlation between confidence level and what group a person falls into. Perversely, the most confident group is the second one: people who know very little, but don't know they are in fact ignorant. This group is generally associated with a level of incompetence in the subject. In students, this can mean that some of the most confident kids are actually the worst prepared!

The second cause is the illusion of familiarity. There is a vast chasm between being able to recognize (which literally means "to know something again") something you have seen before and actually understanding it. We tend to review material, and mistake the feeling of having seen it before with KNOWING it and being able to USE it. (This is an especially big problem in math.)

So, what's the solution? How do we tell the difference between FEELING like we know something versus actually knowing it?

The short answer is repeated quizzing. Reviewing notes doesn't really work. It just makes you FEEL like you know it, because you have a sense of familiarity seeing it again. For facts, there really isn't any substitute for flashcards, and for skills like in mathematics or language arts, repeated practice problems are really the only way to go. (At Treland, we use an online program called IXL with our math students.) You prepare for the test the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

So the next time a kid tells you they feel well prepared, have them haul out their study guide and quiz them to prove it.

Or, just send them to us at Treland, and we'll do it for you!

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