By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

I first heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect from biology professor James Cheetham. It is named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning who wrote a paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It”. The effect is often seen on TV in some popular talent show auditions, such as American Idol.

I have also observed the Dunning-Kruger effect in some of my classes. In particular, I have had students who thought they knew the course material well enough to ace the final exam, when in fact they didn’t. It was not that they did not spend enough time studying. Rather, they thought that once they understood what they had read, they would be able to demonstrate that understanding.

In her book, A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley talked about such illusions of competence and offered advice on how to overcome it. Many other authors have also written on the subject as well.

Of course in this day and age of apps, one can also find apps that help one overcome self-delusion. For example, Apple’s GarageBand can give you a score on how well you have played a piano lesson. There are also language apps that tell you your level of fluency and education apps that tell you how well you have learned a subject.

Such apps can be tremendously effective for skills development. However, having used some of these apps myself, I feel that after a certain point, they can make their users become dependent on them for reassurance. After all, if I constantly need an app to tell me how well I am doing in calculus, how well do I actually know calculus?

As technology for skills development continue to improve, the role of the teacher could shift more towards helping students develop metacognitive abilities so that their need for high-tech training wheels becomes less and less. It is perhaps not surprising that the importance of teaching critical thinking is now being emphasized at all levels of schooling.