(Or “What the Dunning–Kruger Effect Has to Do with Education”)
Recently, I received a call from the mother of a college graduate planning to enroll in one of the doctorate-level degree programs that required a standardized admissions test. She was wondering, in light of the overall excellence of her son’s undergraduate work, if he should bother preparing for this complex, specialized, high-stakes test. You can imagine how I, after decades of watching students on that same path strive for uncertain success, responded.
Any objective observer would recognize my blatant bias in issues like this, but even after consideration of all of the background and particular details at play here, I couldn’t see how else one would answer this question:
“Should I prep for a test?”
In other words, “Should I study for a test?”
That is a weird question, right? Does a musician ask, “Should I rehearse for the concert?”
Does an athlete ask, “Do I really need to practice before the playoffs?”
(If you’re not sure, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “YES.”)
When people question what seems to be an obvious course of action, failing to even recognize even the obviousness of the issue, it is worth exploring why. This surprisingly common question may qualify as the Dunning–Kruger Effect at work. The Dunning–Kruger Effect, if you weren’t aware, is a cognitive bias in which the less people know, the less likely they are to recognize their ignorance or incompetence. More simply, when you don’t know much, you usually don’t know that you don’t know much.
Returning back to the example of athletes, anyone who followed a life path other than professional sports might be surprised at just how much pro athletes practice. Do a little digging and you’ll find that the leaders in every sport receive more practice and coaching than anyone at lower levels of the same sport or even their less masterful peers. You and I may wonder just how much Lebron James gets from an extra hour of shooting free throws, but he doesn’t question the value of such diligence; that’s why he’s the king.
So, when you’re wondering if you should prepare for something–anything really–the answer is almost certainly yes. If the task is complicated, the stakes high, or rewards sweet, the answer is definitely yes.
However, if you are unconvinced, here’s an easy way to test your bias: just try to do that thing. Take a practice test, run through your lines, try to parallel park… go see how good you are under the conditions or level of competition you’ll face when it counts. If you’re good enough for your goals, congrats. Otherwise, get to work!