Ignorant of Their Ignorance

Shari Wilson writes about students and their inability to predict their academic performance -- and why their instructors should worry.

November 16, 2006

My undergraduate students can't accurately predict their academic performance or skill levels. Earlier in the semester, a writing assignment on study styles revealed that 14 percent of my undergraduate English composition students considered themselves "overachievers." Not one of those students was receiving an A in my course by midterm. Fifty percent were receiving a C, another third was receiving B's and the remainder had earned failing grades by midterm. One student wrote, "overachievers like myself began a long time ago." She received a 70 percent on her first paper and a low C at midterm.

A solid 40 percent  of my undergraduate English composition students described themselves as "overachieving if they liked the subject." The grades for these students, understandably, were scattered. Twenty-nine percent of my undergraduates described their study styles as "normal." Of these, 36 percent were working at a C level by midterm; another 18 percent were receiving a B, with another 18 percent receiving a D. The remaining 27 percent were failing. One student who described his study style as "normal" confessed that he rarely started assignments when they were first given out, waited until a few days before work was due to get started, and did a lot of his writing over the weekend. At midterm, he was receiving an F.

A whopping 17 percent  of my undergraduates confessed to being "underachievers"-studying at the last minute, not doing the reading, and only spending a few hours on major assignments.

My data -- though tremendously limited in scope-seems to be supported by Douglas Hacker's findings. In "Test Prediction and Performance in a Classroom Context," an article published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Hacker and colleagues at the University of Memphis found that to a great degree, overconfidence is prevalent among low-performing students. True, Hacker's study was with introductory psychology undergraduates rather than English composition students. But it does give me a great deal of insight as to how students predict performance. And although I don't like the idea of considering my students "low-performers," I admit that my state does have a weak high school system, and my university doesn't turn paying students away. Even low-achievers are admitted under a "conditional" admission standard.

I don't think Hacker's experience is unique. Dozens of colleagues have told me that their undergraduates simply do not have the tools to criticize and evaluate their own work-much less predict how well they will do on assignments. What's behind this  great drop in ability to assess performance?

A colleague of mine believes that primary and secondary schools, overwhelmed with students who were never well prepared for school, students with learning disabilities, addictions, and even severe discipline problems have found themselves delivering a weakened curriculum. Yet a recent article in American Educator, "Balancing the Educational Agenda," by Jean Johnson et al, indicates that academic standards for secondary schools are rising-a move supported not only by academics and administrators, but by parents as well. Perhaps this move is recent; those of us in postsecondary positions are, in effect, responding to the academic standards in place a decade ago. Or perhaps regions suffer differences in standards based on student population and demands of the surrounding community. Another possibility, among others, is that the curriculum shifts when administrators attempt to adopt each new trend in education.

Just as an inconsistent curriculum can cause students pain and confusion, the move from high school to college can be a hair-raising leap. High school systems with a weak curriculum (or one that is not consistently applied) can create tremendous problems later in the academic system. At my current university, a large percentage of our undergraduates have brought their high-school experience with them. Some of them are under the impression that if they now come to their college classes every day, they will pass these courses. Many of these students are stunned whey they fail their first major test or receive a D  for what they thought was an award-winning essay.

Even when academic advisors warn, "college is not high school," many of these under-prepared students continue to believe that they will receive A's for a token effort. Clear class objectives and strongly worded syllabi are often ignored as students continue to overestimate their capabilities based on past performance. After the first major assessment, many of these students clutch at their professors' arms, lamenting, "But I got A's in high school."

Colleagues often commiserate about this particular student response. After all, it's almost impossible to respond to. Often we can only repeat that our expectations are clearly outlined in the syllabus and course outline, that we would be happy to define these further, and that they may want to drop the course if they cannot afford to dedicate time outside of class for study. One professor friend  often tells students that the A's they received in high school are simply a step toward admittance to the local university-not a guarantee of grades.

Another colleague says that the level of competition has changed from high school to college; until freshman understand that, they will be inaccurately predicting performance. And the vilification of competition has set up many students to believe that they are all doing well -- regardless of outcome. As a friend of mine in teacher education says, "It's the result of the 'feel good 70's' where every child was deemed a winner. Competition was considered demoralizing. The result was a continuing trend in the 90's which focuses on reward across the board. Today, we have turned out a glut of students who not only can't assess themselves, but who have received awards for every little thing." When they enroll in college, students often still have no idea how they fare when compared with other undergraduates.

A good friend on staff at a university library says that helicopter parenting also contributes to the problem. When he escorts tour groups of grade school students through his facility for a hands-on learning tour, he often sees parents and grandparents hovering so much that instead of helping young students stay focused on assignments, the children end up being spectators instead of participants in what should be their chance to "try out" a college experience. The urge to spare children from the ego blows of failure, too, often results in parents actually doing homework for children -- not only in primary and secondary grades, but in college, as well. Some parents, perhaps perfectionists, have rationalized that if they "assist" their child, the task will be done in a much shorter time. Unfortunately for these children, their formative years do not allow for effort, failure, increased effort, failure, and another attempt which results in success. This set up may produce college students who can only do the most superficial work before becoming discouraged.

Another  academic friend says that an inability to focus and an overwhelming desire to multi-task make it almost impossible for students to succeed academically. Staff who manage study rooms and carrels often report that students seem to work "in dribs and drabs" while in the library. Backpacks in hand, they often loiter at computers and chat at tables instead of actually working. Dependent on high-tech gadgets, these same students often feel compelled to answer phones while in study groups, and constantly check e-mail or view sites such as Facebook or MySpace during hours they had dedicated to working on assignments or doing research.

One reference desk librarian reported that she would see students "studying for four minutes, goofing off for a half an hour, and then studying for another four minutes." Of course, these students often report to faculty that they've been studying for hours -- which in some ways must seem like an accurate appraisal. After all, they were in the library; therefore, they must have been studying. In the end, a diminished attention span combined with the feeling that doing one thing at a time is a waste of time almost guarantees that they will not be turning in top A-level work to their professors.

This narrative is very incomplete as a study. I'm sure that sociologists, education specialists and other experts have outlined a  long history and a number of interrelated causes that explain this drop out in students' knowledge.

As an instructor of undergraduate core classes, however, I realize that my responsibility does not stop at content. I cannot simply list assessment as a course objective and then feign ignorance when my students show me again and again that they cannot predict their own performance. Strategies -- not only for instruction, but also for exercises and assessment -- are integral in setting my students on the right path for the remainder of their college careers. To accomplish this, I realize that I will need to work much, much harder to help my undergraduates understand assignments and expectations, rubrics and  
assessments, in-class grades and the prediction of success.

Some is already in place. Like many English composition instructors, I do instill a peer-editing component to my writing courses -- not only to help students view writing as a process -- but to give them some tools and much-needed experience in evaluating student work. I provide instruction in how to apply rubrics to student work and often use past student work as "models." Some students are glad for the transparency of my courses; with a detailed 16-week course outline given out at the first class, they can start relating course objectives to specific assignments throughout the semester. Lessons scaffold one on another; assessment follows thorough instruction. Still, there is much to be done. It's clear that I need to develop more tools to help my students learn to assess their own work and predict academic performance more accurately.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top