It’s a common thing to hear about high performing individuals who have impressive careers suffering from low self esteem. Namely, they tend to underestimate their skill sets and ability, while lower-performing individuals frequently overestimate their abilities. This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Essentially, it’s a cognitive bias in which low-performing individuals overestimate their abilities and high-performing people underestimate them. These findings are from a study at Cornell University in 1999, where students with higher-than-average ability assumed that tasks that they performed with ease were just as easy for other students. This created the assumption that other students performed with the same level of competence as they did, which often times wasn't the case.

It's an interesting study that tells us a lot about how individuals perceive themselves and their abilities, but a new study out of the UK is following up on that report and finding once again that high achieving students may be doing themselves a disservice.

High Achievers And Skill Development

The University of Warwick ran a study to track individual student improvement over their time enrolled in university. They focused on two metrics: the first being grade improvement and the second being a self-reported skill development. What they found was that there were major variances between how high-performing and low-performing students gauged their own skill development over the course of their university career. And those findings strongly correlate with the results from Dunning and Kruger's Cornell study almost two decades prior.

More specifically, the University of Warwick study found that high-achieving students who performed well in their classes reported low levels of improvement in higher-education skills such as computer skills, writing skills, and numeracy. Meanwhile, students who performed at a lower academic level overestimated their skill improvement - even when their grades and test scores proved otherwise.

So what does this tell us? Well, for starters, there might be a reason why high academic performers tend to perform so well. It could be that they underestimate their level of skill and overcompensate with additional studying and tutoring to make up for it. Likewise, if under-performers don't realise that they are under-performing, there’s a much lower chance that they’ll work harder to see improvements. The main takeaway from this research is that most university students (and people in general) don’t provide the most objective viewpoint when it comes to evaluating themselves. What’s more important is to be able to gauge your level of competence on a subject based on how well you perform compared to your peers.

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