Skip to content

Underskilled and Overconfident

After reading two journal articles recently, I realized that our jobs are even harder than we thought they were. In 1999 Justin Kruger and David Dunning found out that people who are unskilled in certain types of domains (logic and grammar, for example) can’t tell that they’re unskilled and (and this is the real kicker) they can’t even tell they’ve done poorly when they’re shown the work of skilled people.* In their study, Kruger and Dunning found that people who scored in the bottom quartile of each of their skill sets suffered from five fatal misconceptions.

  • They significantly overestimated their performances.
  • They tended to feel that they performed at a higher level than their peers.
  • They believed that they were above average in ability.
  • They were unable to gain insight into their own performance from analyzing their peers’ performance. And they were unable to recognize competence in others.

Late last year Melissa Gross** took this research and applied it to research skills and information literacy. Her article posed many questions and called for quite a bit of research into how this “competence theory” intersects with things like library user anxiety and research habits. This is worth reading, especially if you realize from the outset that it doesn’t provide any answers to the questions it raises, and that it’s highly focused on interpreting competence theory, so it doesn’t address other factors that may play into incompetence.

What really resonated with me, though, is the notion that the less skilled people are, the less they will be able to make use of social comparison as a learning tool. They will be less able to see the difference between their performance and an expert’s, and therefore less able to learn to be more like the expert. The first time I read that, it didn’t really jump out at me. But then, as I started thinking how this applied to my job (training those who don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to research) I realized that instruction librarians rely heavily on their students’ ability to see that what the librarians are doing when they approach a research problem is different and more sophisticated than what the students have been doing and, as a result of realizing these differences, learn to search more like the librarians. This is the essence of the lecture/demo method of library instruction. And this is just not effective for the least skilled of our students.

So here’s my pledge. I will find a way to break my habit of demonstrating techniques and then having students recreate my strategies using their own search topics. I will find a way to provide the feedback (negative as well as positive) that Kruger and Dunning say is required for advancement without making library instruction any more of an odious chore than it is for my students. By hook or by crook, I will find a way to increase the skills of my lowest quartile of library searchers to the point where they can begin to avail themselves of social comparison without sabotaging the learning efforts of the highest quartile.

My next class is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. It’s only for three students, and I’ve got an hour and a half. This is the perfect opportunity to experiment with a different teaching style. Wish me luck.

    *Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “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 (Dec 1999): 1121-1134.
    **Gross, Melissa. “The Impact of Low-Level Skills on Information-Seeking Behavior: Implications of Competency Theory for Research and Practice.” Reference & User Services Quarterly. 45.2 (2005): 155-163.
Published inTeaching and Learning



    iris is a cool name

  2. CW CW

    Thanks for pointing out these articles Iris – I’ve made a note and will make sure I read them soon!

  3. Iris Iris

    If you come up with any interesting solutions, CW, please let me know!

    And even though I was born in the 70s, I’m not actually named after the flower. My dad was really into mythology when I was born and named me after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, which (in turn) reminded my parents of Noah’s rainbow in the Old Testament, an image they really liked. Luckily, I also really like the flower itself because that’s kind of hard to explain in a nutshell. Imagine telling your name while, say, making a dentist’s appointment, and saying “Iris, like the Greek goddess of the rainbow.” “Iris, like the flower” is SO much easier. :)

  4. […] it’ll get better. It WILL get better. I’m sticking to my pledge (see the very bottom of this post). This entry was posted in teaching and learning. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave […]

  5. […] of you probably weren’t reading this blog back when I talked about an article I read about Competence Theory. Well, now I’ve experienced it. I know it’s not the […]

Comments are closed.