Unskilled and Unaware: A Metacognitive Bias


by John R. Schumacher, Eevin Akers, & Roman Taraban (all from Texas Tech University).

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight, with no attempt to disguise himself. When he was arrested that night, he objected “But I wore the juice.” Because lelemonmon juice can be used as an invisible ink, Wheeler thought that rubbing his face with lemon juice would make it invisible to surveillance cameras in the banks. Kruger and Dunning (1999) used Wheeler’s story to exemplify a metacognitive bias through which relatively unskilled individuals overestimate their skill, being both unaware of their ineptitude and holding an inflated sense of their knowledge or ability. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it also seems to apply to some academic settings. For example, Kruger and Dunning found that some students are able to accurately predict their performance prior to taking a test. That is, these students predict that they will do well on the test and actually perform well on the test. Other students predict that they will do well on a test, but do poorly on the test. These students tend to have an inflated sense of how well they will do but do poorly, thus they fit the Dunning-Kruger effect. Because these students’ predictions do not match their performance, we describe them as poorly calibrated. Good calibration involves metacognitive awareness. This post explores how note taking relates to calibration and metacognitive awareness.

Some of the experiments in our lab concern the benefits of note taking. In these experiments, students were presented with a college lecture. Note takers recalled more than non-notetakers, who simply watched the video (Jennings & Taraban, 2014). The question we explored was whether good note taking skills improved students’ calibration of how much they know and thereby reduced the unskilled and unaware effect reported by Kruger and Dunning (1999).

In one experiment, participants watched a 30-minute video lecture while either taking notes (notetakers) or simply viewing the video (non-notetakers). They returned 24 hours later. They predicted the percentage of information they believed they would recall, using a scale of 0 to 100, and then took a free-recall test, without being given an opportunity to study their notes or mentally review the prior day’s video lecture. They then studied their notes (notetakers) or mentally reviewed the lecture (non-notetakers) from the previous day, for12 minutes, and took a second free-recall test. In order to assess the Dunning-Kruger effect, we subtracted the actual percent of lecture material that was recalled in each test (0 to 100) from participants’ predictions of how much they would recall on each test (0 to 100). For example, if a participant predicted he or she would correctly recall 75% of the material on a test and actually recalled 50% the calibration score would be +25 (75 – 50 = 25). Values close to +100 indicated extreme overconfidence, values close to -100 indicated extreme underconfidence, and values close to 0 indicated good calibration. To answer our question about how note taking relates to calibration, we compared the calibration scores for the two groups (note takers and non-notetakers) for the two situations (before reviewing notes or reflecting, and after reviewing notes or reflecting). These analyses indicated that the two groups did not differ in calibration for the first, free recall test. However, to our surprise, note takers became significantly more overconfident, and thus less calibrated in their predictions, than non-notetakers on the second test. After studying, notetakers’ calibration became worse.

Note taking increases test performance. So why doesn’t note taking improve calibration? Since note takers are more “skilled”, that is, have encoded and stored more information from the lecture, shouldn’t they be more “aware”, that is, better calibrated, as the Dunning-Kruger effect would imply? One possible explanation is that studying notes immediately increases the amount of information processed in working memory. The information that participants will be asked to recall shortly is highly active and available. This sense of availability produces the inflated (and false) prediction that much information will be remembered on the test. Is this overconfidence harmful to the learner? It could be harmful to the extent that individuals often self-generate predictions of how well they will do on a test in order to self-regulate their study behaviors. Poor calibration of these predictions could lead to the individual failing to recognize that he or she requires additional study time before all material is properly stored and able to be recalled.

If note taking itself is not the problem, then is there some way students can improve their calibration after studying in order to better regulate subsequent study efforts? The answer is “yes.” Research has shown that predictions of future performance improve if there is a short delay between studying information and predicting subsequent test performance (Thiede, Dunlosky, Griffin, & Wiley, 2005). In order to improve calibration after studying notes, students should be encouraged to wait, after studying their notes, before judging whether they need additional study time. In order to improve metacognitive awareness with respect to calibration, students need to understand that immediate judgments of how much they know may be inflated. They need to be aware that waiting a short time before judging whether they need more study will result in more effective self-regulation of study time.

Jennings, E., & Taraban, R. (May, 2014). Note-taking in the modern college classroom: Computer, paper and pencil, or listening? Paper presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA), Chicago, IL.

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.

Thiede, K. W., Dunlosky, J., Griffin, T. D., & Wiley, J. (2005). Understanding the delayed-keyword effect on metacomprehension accuracy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(6), 1-25.

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