Students don’t realize how ignorant they are.

Teaching a survey class for non-science majors year after year has taught me unexpected things about college students.  These provide some insight into their recent behavior.

One of the most surprising things I learned is that students don’t know how ignorant they are.  Ability to self-diagnose one’s understanding is an acquired skill.  Undergraduates don’t have it when they arrive, and I suspect many never pick it up.

Most years, especially the early ones, a few students would come to my office after exams convinced before the test that they were well prepared and then unable to understand how they did so poorly.  As I talked to them, it quickly became clear that they didn’t know anything.  Not only were they unable to solve the type of problems we did in class, they didn’t even know the basic vocabulary I had taught, insisted they know, and proceeded to use for weeks.

Ignorance is one thing, but how could these students not have known beforehand that they were going to bomb the exam?  Either I wasn’t communicating successfully what I wanted them to know, or they actually didn’t realize that they didn’t know it.  So subsequent years, I worked on both:  emphasizing main points in each lecture, preparing  detailed study guides, having students do practice exams, discussing self-diagnostic strategies.  At the same time, I collected data from their exams and student surveys.  (Exams are a good thing to focus on here, because it’s the only thing students take seriously, even when all exams together only count for 30% of the total grade.)

I was surprised to find that nothing seems to help students up through the first midterm.  You can give them a test almost the same as the real exam (content as well as style) and walk them through the answers, and the next lecture they will still bomb the test and in surveys still report coming in completely confident and coming out regretting “studying the wrong things”.  Interestingly, they realize during the test that they don’t know the answers.  It’s not that they have incorrect information in their heads and get nasty surprises when their grades come in.  And yet, they came out of an almost identical practice test before the real exam thinking they knew the material well.  Somehow, they don’t connect not knowing answers to particular problems to the underlying gaps in their understanding.   Fortunately, for subsequent exams, they are much better able to utilize the tools I give them to identify and correct knowledge and understanding gaps beforehand, scores improve, and they even demonstrate greater competence on exam 1 material when they see it again on the final.

So, undergraduates can learn to diagnose and correct their ignorance if it is sufficiently impressed upon them that their grade depends upon it, and they are given elaborate tools to make it very easy.

I suspect they’re still not very good self-diagnosers, and that this reflects a general difficulty with reflective consciousness of their own knowledge and beliefs.  Related features of this, for which I have only anecdotal evidence, are

  1. Terrible writing skills.  My TAs have noted that these kids have great difficulty formulating coherent sentences, and the couple of times I allowed a couple of students to make up points by writing papers I was shocked by their ignorance of basic grammar (e.g. capitalizations and punctuations randomly thrown into sentences).  If you can’t express your thoughts clearly in writing, you cannot think them clearly.  (We demand complete sentences in lab reports to help them with this, but really, I think that this should have been someone else’s job.)
  2. Modularized thinking.  I see little evidence that students try to integrate their fragments of knowledge into a coherent worldview (e.g. being concerned with consistency).  This is partly the fault of course curricula, which are often unfortunately modular themselves (especially survey classes).

I do not remember suffering as severely from these defects as an undergraduate (but then again, I wouldn’t, would I?), but I have noticed definite improvement in these areas with age.  I certainly write better and am much more attentive to how the pieces of knowledge in my mind relate to each other than I was in college.

This ability to study one’s own mental makeup, particularly to be conscious of one’s own ignorance, is not identical to general intelligence.  If I were to guess, I would say that people of middling IQ are the worst at it.  Thus, our students’ shortcomings are to a significant degree our fault.  I once heard a lecture on physics education by Carl Wieman in which he noticed a consistent pattern (I’m going from memory here) that his students had very poor problem solving skills and physics intuition until they got out of classes and into doing research in the lab, at which point they quickly underwent an intellectual transformation.

At least in physics we know that this is a problem.  In the humanities and social sciences, students may well have their heads filled with postmodern nonsense and hostility to the very idea of objective truth, without which the possibility of their own ignorance doesn’t even present itself.  Worst of all, they will be taught “critical thinking”, meaning thought as a weapon against Western civilization.  The trouble with “critical thinking” is that the answers are always known in advance.  Is it possible that the result of a critical analysis will be that a particular Western polity has historically acquitted itself very well, that Christian theology is actually quite cogent, or that patriarchy is a just and efficient social system?  Of course not!  That would just mean that the student has not thought “critically” enough.

How does this help explain the tendency of undergraduates to form howling mobs whenever someone rumored to have unapproved opinions comes to campus?

First, everyone will have noticed that the accusations they shout at their victims are often wildly inaccurate, and that the students don’t make the slightest efforts to justify them.  Possibly some of them are engaged in deliberate slander, being consciously uninterested in the truth of their accusations.  Possibly some use idiosyncratic meanings of words like “white supremacism”, “homophobia”, etc, so that any deviation from progressive orthodoxy (even on a seemingly unrelated issue) qualifies.  For many, though, I suspect the question of whether they have accurately understood and described the beliefs of Charles Murray, Bret Weinstein, etc. doesn’t even arise for them.  They are not in the habit of analyzing their own beliefs, of trying to take an outside view from which their correspondence to reality can be questioned, and thus their outrage is self-legitimating.

Second, we have all been struck by what seems utterly shameless hypocrisy from the students, how they will denounce their victims for having thoughts which are violent and intimidating all the while directly engaging in physical violence and intimidation, how they justify terrorizing dissenters as an exercise in free speech, and so forth.  In fact, very few possess the degree of self-consciousness required for hypocrisy.  Because they can’t objectify their own consciousness, they can’t imaginatively separate from it, can’t take a principle and apply it disinterestedly to themselves and their opponents.  I’m quite sure it never occurs to them to ask if their own tribalism or anti-white animus is “racist”.

Their editorials and manifestos show the same hallmarks of undergraduate cognitive limitations:  poor writing, big words used incorrectly or at least awkwardly, obvious self-contradiction, lack of precision or concern for veracity in their denunciations.

18 Responses

  1. Very good post – made me think.

    My conclusion is that these students are blocked from learning because they assume that they *already* know.

    I don’t think this can always be cured, but the best cure is an apprenticeship-type of personal educational relationship – in which the apprentice who wants to learn spends a long time in the presence of the master who knows. (Grad school and PhD research may provide exactly this.)

    Through multiple observations, trial and error, and personal interactions – the apprentice comes to recognise that he cannot do what the master does – and sets himself to learn.

    This process may take many weeks and many repetitions.

    Mass undergraduate ‘education’; can’t do it – or at least, it requires multiple recurrent exam Fails to hammer the point home to the extent that the student is (pretty much) required to revise his own self-evaluation… although some students will continue to ‘discover’ reasons why their Fails do not reflect their actual lack of knowledge/ ability.

  2. Terrible writing skills. My TAs have noted that these kids have great difficulty formulating coherent sentences, and the couple of times I allowed a couple of students to make up points by writing papers I was shocked by their ignorance of basic grammar

    The fruit of terrible or non-existent reading habits. A college admissions officer should ignore SATs and whatnot and just interview a student and ask him what books he is reading and what he thought about them. Should be able to tell in less than five minutes whether he is college material or not.

  3. > these students are blocked from learning because they assume that they *already* know.

    Thus, it seems likely that doing terribly on the first exam is just a necessary part of the process. For a long time, I was exasperated that nothing I do seems to improve student performance during the first third of the class, but I’m starting to think that this is not a defect of the course, that to some extent they owe their better performance later to their bad early performance.

  4. When I was in college, I noticed my fellow classmates did not seem engaged with the material at all. Many wanted good grades, but they weren’t interested enough in anything to have an opinion on it.

    I came to this conclusion after studying with a young woman who asked me how I kept much of what I learned in history class in my head.

    But, I suspect that woman probably has a better job than I do now. She would certainly be more acceptable for employment in various fields of research, for she would only seek to memorize, and not criticize the sacred cows.

  5. Just a question: Since the first third of their performance is inevitably poor, do you take that factor into later grading them especially in regards to their final course grade?

  6. There is an overall curve in the sense that final letter grade cuttoffs are set so that the median grade isn’t worse than a B-. This is probably not the ideal solution, but it makes it so that most students get Bs and Cs rather than Cs and Ds.

  7. You know, you’re only a very small (tiny, really), itsy bitsy step from straight-out agreeing with Aristotle about the existence and character of the Natural Slave.

    The problem with these people isn’t that they’re not self-analysing. The problem with these people is that we’ve told them they are, and shoved them out into a cold, hard, confusing world and forced them to care for themselves, rather than putting them to productive, carefully-guided purposes.

  8. I do agree with Aristotle:

    However, my particular observations here aren’t relevant, because I think they have more to do with our failure to properly guide students to develop these skills than the students’ innate capabilities.

  9. I think I mentioned once that I majored in Physics (at a large public university in Florida).
    Our junior/senior level physics classes (e.g. electrodynamics, classical mechanics – maybe a dozen students at most in a class) were populated by a few physics majors, a few astronomy majors and a few physics-education majors. The classes were clearly dumbed-down to the professor’s perception of the ability of his body of students.
    I remember junior level electrodynamics. The professor would work through the problems from the book on the board. He would then provide homework problems out of the book. The homework was returned along with complete, step by step, correct solutions. The tests that followed were always, word-for-word, number-for-number from the book problems detailed in class or from the homework problems. All one had to do was work each problem a few times the weekend before the test and you could pretty much reproduce the solutions on the test by rote memory. A couple of us would get perfect scores and the rest of the class would get 30’s, 40’s (utterly flunk the test). Amazingly, the people that flunked the tests somehow managed to pass – there was massive grade inflation.

  10. I teach Advanced Placement English at a poor, rural high school in California. Despite the differences in our settings, I have observed the exact same tendencies. Students assume they know the material “pretty well” even if they just bombed a mirror test. They go in feeling “very confident” about the AP test without having ever passed any of the model AP tests I have given them.

    Their writing is abysmal, and nothing I say or demonstrate seems to make a difference. I have students who capitalize randomly, or put one period at the end of their essay, or start their essay with “in my opinion I think…” I tell them and show them what’s wrong with this time and time again, and nothing changes. There is no retention. I think it stems from the lack of reading that Scott W. mentions.

    There are some people who simply won’t read. It is impossible for me to understand it: why would you not want to read when you have the opportunity? But they don’t do it, and it’s an open secret/joke that students in AP English are generally not interested in literature, argumentation, or rhetoric.

  11. As for “critical thinking,” I teach my students formal logic. They learn to evaluate syllogisms for validity and truth, and how to write their own. I also teach them how to rephrase arguments into syllogisms so that they can examine what others are saying. I think this is “critical thinking.”

    However, I have found that other teachers mean exactly what you suggest they mean when they teach critical thinking skills. I recently heard a teacher remark proudly that he would lower a student’s grade if the student denied a particular feminist doctrine that he had taught in class. Much like “argument,” “critical” is a word whose meaning is obscured by the negative connotations the average person associates with it. To most teachers, “critical thinking” means “thinking bad things about present society.” And they tend to think that “present society” is a right-wing Christian theocratic dystopia.

  12. ‘Critical thinking’ has a very clear, concise, and consistent technical definition. It means thinking through the lens of Critical Theory.

    That may not be what you were told it means, but you don’t expect our cultural masters to tell the truth, do you?

  13. I’ve heard a variety of definitions. But regardless, it’s a term that’s used to justify anything and everything that an administrator might want to make a teacher do.

  14. > I teach Advanced Placement English at a poor, rural high school in California.

    It’s amazing how consistent our experiences are.

  15. It’s probably due to a lack of reading and practicing writing and research. I participate in extemporaneous speaking and Lincoln-Douglas debate. I never won any awards, but you do pick up methods to organize material coherently and checking your sources. I certainly found it helpful in college even when writing about a topic I was not very excited about. I always got high marks on organization.

  16. […] confront their moral weakness, perhaps they have not had to confront their intellectual weakness.  They don’t know how ignorant they are.  Faculty are right to protect students from embarrassment or discouragement–to, for example, […]

  17. Can’t we just chalk it up to insufficient filtering for IQ?

  18. […] confront their moral weakness, perhaps they have not had to confront their intellectual weakness. They don’t know how ignorant they are. Faculty are right to protect students from embarrassment or discouragement–to, for example, make […]

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