ATD Blog

What Do You Know: Do We Know When We Don’t Know?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

One motivation adults have for learning is the awareness that they need additional knowledge and skills. They may seek help, ask questions, hunt for information, and look for ways to learn. But wait. Do most people know when they need additional knowledge and skills? What does research tell us? 

Let’s consider a question. (Pick what you consider to be the best answer. The “correct” answer isn’t the point. The point is to think about what you know and believe before we jump in.)

Can people correctly evaluate whether they need additional knowledge and skills to perform their job?  

A. Most people are unable to correctly evaluate their performance and the need for additional knowledge and skills. 

B. Most people are able to correctly evaluate their performance and the need for additional knowledge and skills. 

C. The people who are least proficient are more able to correctly evaluate their performance and the need for additional knowledge and skills. 

D. The people who are most proficient are more able to correctly evaluate their performance and the need for additional knowledge and skills. 

In Learning Paths: Increase Profits by Reducing the Time It Takes Employees to Get Up to Speed, authors Rosenbaum and Williams provide a good definition for proficiency: “Proficiency is when a new employee achieves a predetermined level of performance on a consistent basis.” Do learning and development (L&D) departments consider proficiency (as defined here) their mission? Do they use proficiency and time-to-proficiency (how fast people become proficient) as critical metrics of their own proficiency? Should they? You tell me. 

Who Knows If They Know? 

Research on the nature of proficiency at social and intellectual tasks shows that people who are less proficient tend to have serious problems recognizing that they are not proficient at these tasks. Research from Kruger and Dunning (see References) shows that people with lower skill in these tasks tend to hold much higher views of their abilities, while people with higher skills in these tasks hold slightly lower views of their abilities. 


For example, in one of the four tests of their research, participants were given 20 items from the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) on logical reasoning. After they completed the test, they were asked to estimate their score. Participants who did the worst scored at the 12th percentile (meaning 88 percent did better than they did), but they estimated that performance at the 68th percentile. Participants who scored in the 86th percentile estimated themselves at the 68th percentile. They found this same result in all of the tests.  

The answer to the question I posed earlier is A and D. The best answer is D, but it’s important to realize that the entire range had problems judging their performance. So if you answered A, that’s really correct. (And no, you should not ask tricky questions when you design multiple choice questions!) 


According to Kruger and Dunning, the reason this occurs is because a lack of proficiency robs people of the metacognitive skill to recognize proficiency. In other words, the skills it takes to write a good email are the same skills it takes to know if the email is well-written.  

Metacognition, therefore, is the ability to monitor and assess one's own understanding. It’s what makes people who are more proficient better able to determine what they need to learn. So helping people become proficient is important because not only do they do better on the job, but they are more able to keep learning and keep doing better. 

More About Not Knowing 

This research has been replicated and extended in various places and topics, and has become known as the Dunning Kruger Effect. Dunning discusses people not knowing that they don’t know in the 2012 National Financial Capability Study (U.S. Treasury), in which 25,000 respondents rated their financial knowledge and took a test on financial literacy. Nearly 800 respondents who indicated filing bankruptcy within the last two years performed very poorly on the test but also rated their financial knowledge as higher than others. 

There has been a great deal of academic discussion about why this effect occurs. Krueger and Mueller say it happens because of a common statistical effect (regression to the mean) and the fact that people simply tend to inflate their estimates of their relative ability (the better-than-average heuristic). Meanwhile, researchers Burson, Larrick, and Klayman performed additional experiments to see if task difficulty changed the results and they found that people did tend to be more negative about their abilities for a very hard task. Still, the reason for the effect seem to still be open for interpretation. 


Bottom Line 

The capacity to accurately evaluate one’s performance and compare it to others is important as it impacts learning and other choices. What I have exposed here is that research shows that people seem to be limited in their ability to do this. Some researchers indicate that this is a more western phenomenon, as people in some non-western societies are taught to be more modest about their skills.


Attri, R.K. & Wu, W.S. (December, 2015). Conceptual model of workplace training and learning strategies to shorten time-to-proficiency in complex skills: preliminary findings. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning. Singapore. 

Burson, Katherine Alicia and Larrick, Richard P. and Klayman, Joshua. Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions of Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons. Ross School of Business Paper No. 956. 

Dunning, D. (October 27, 2014). We are all confident idiots

Krueger, J., & Mueller, R. A. (2002). Unskilled, unaware, or both? The better-than-average heuristic and statistical regression predict errors in estimates of own performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 180-188.  

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). 1121–34.  

Rosenbaum, S. and Williams, J. (2004) Learning paths: Increase profits by reducing the time it takes employees to get up to speed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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