‘I already know this stuff’: How to handle overconfident learners
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‘I already know this stuff’: How to handle overconfident learners

There’s nothing wrong with confidence. You hire people based on their skills and aptitude, and you want them to believe in themselves. The problem is: People aren’t great judges of their own knowledge. In fact, we’re all pretty bad at it.

Specifically, people tend to overestimate their own abilities. Countless studies have demonstrated that people routinely misjudge both how much they know and how well they’ll perform.

What’s worse, lower performers tend to overestimate their abilities even more than average or high performers. Which could mean that your least qualified employees are also likely to be your most overconfident. You can see how that can be… less than ideal.

So how can you get learners to actually see their knowledge gaps and admit they have room to improve?

Researchers at the University of Utah looked at strategies to solve the problem of learner overconfidence. And they found that one aspect of the learning process opened learners’ eyes: practice.

The research

The study took place in a rigorous college chemistry course. Before the course began, researchers asked the students to estimate their final grade. In keeping with past studies, the students overestimated, this time by an average of 11 percent. Even more alarming, the students who ended up scoring in the bottom quarter of the class overestimated their final grade by 22 percent.

The next semester, the researchers created a strategy that they hoped would help learners see the light. They divided students into two groups: the intervention group and the control group. The crucial difference: Instead of the final exam serving as the course’s sole assessment, the intervention group received weekly practice tests.

The practice tests didn’t count toward the students’ grades. They were really about providing feedback. They provided students with a real-time view into their performance and the areas they needed to improve. By presenting learners with their actual knowledge level, the students could no longer live in their overconfident bubble.

As a result, students in the intervention group practiced more and scored roughly four percent higher on the final exam than the control group. And the low performers made the most significant gains. The students in the bottom quarter of the class raised their final grades a full 10 percent on average.


Here are some suggestions for how to apply the study’s findings in your workplace learning program.

Provide opportunities to practice.

Consider building practice time into your training sessions. As the study shows, practice not only helps learners improve but reveals their current performance level, which can help erase overconfidence and show them what they need to work on. Of course learners can also practice on their own time to hone their skills. But without formal practice sessions, you can run the risk of learners remaining overconfident in their abilities.

Give timely feedback.

To help learners see their room for improvement, provide them with performance feedback as quickly as possible. If you use any kind of assessments – quizzes, practice sessions, role plays – give learners the results immediately or soon thereafter. The sooner learners know where their knowledge gaps are, the sooner they can address them. And if a learner seems to be struggling with a certain topic, consider having a manager or learning professional give them some personalized feedback to help them get back on track.

Help learners target their efforts.

One of the advantages to practice is that learners can see exactly where they struggle or where their knowledge gaps are. With this information, learners should be able to create a practice plan to address the areas where they’re falling short. If learners need help creating their plan, consider having them pair up with a more experienced peer or learning professional who can give them specific strategies for how to improve.

Casselman, B. L., et al. (2017). Improving general chemistry course performance through online homework-based metacognitive training. Journal of Chemical Education. doi: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.7b00298




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