How an inability to self-assess can derail academic success

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

In this article, Lesley Scott describes the importance that accurate self-assessment plays in academic success.

Each of us know at least one person that consistently underestimates how they are going to perform in a test. We roll our eyes when a friend or classmate who is regularly “convinced” of failure scores above eighty percent…again. At the same time, most of us have experienced the disappointment of a poor test result after feeling confident that our result would be good. Is this inability to accurately self-assess related to a skewed perception of self? How much of a role does self-awareness and the ability to self-assess play in academic success or failure?

As a master’s student in psychology currently researching how lived experiences and perception influence mathematics’ students decision making, it has been interesting to note that even after a number of years of tertiary study, many students are still unable to accurately assess their performance in tests and exams. This dissonance between real and expected performance can have a significant impact on emotional well-being and can lead to conflict when the individual’s perception of their performance is vastly different from the reality.

The ability to accurately self-assess is an indicator of a well-developed self-awareness. Research on this topic[1] shows that in many instances people’s perceptions of their skills, knowledge, personality and character do not correlate with objective reality. There are many factors that can affect the way in which we assess ourselves and our performance. In the same way that a lack of confidence can affect the ability to self-assess, so too can over confidence. When we are looking at the world through the lens of our own reality, we may overlook certain information or choose to ignore feedback we receive. We might assign importance to certain factors while ignoring others. We may rely on our previous experiences or past outcomes when we are asked to assess our current performance.

As individuals, we each create our own reality which is subjective and is based on how we perceive the world. How we see things from our own perspective can result in inaccurate assessment and we may inadvertently interpret a situation in a way that does not reflect the objective reality.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

The extent to which we misjudge ourselves and our abilities can have far reaching consequences. An intrinsic belief that we are “not good” at something or that we do not have the prerequisite skills or cognitive ability required to achieve in a subject like mathematics can have far reaching consequences when we make decisions about things like field of study or career direction. At the same time, over-estimating our potential or intelligence can leave us feeling that we are misunderstood and that our peers or those in positions of authority or seniority are against us.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, provides us with the opportunity to critically examine how we acquire knowledge, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and formulate ways of regulating our behaviours. As we engage in this kind of introspection, we are building the self-awareness required for making more accurate assessments about ourselves and our performance.

“Students who believe that they have control over their learning are more likely to be actively engaged in their academic work and work harder, achieving higher grades”[2]. They are able to critically evaluate their performance against explicit standards.

Lecturers and mentors also have a role to play in facilitating the development of self-assessment skills. Self-aware students have the ability to work independently, motivate themselves intrinsically, and act in an intentional and self-directed manner. Many students will enter the tertiary learning space without these skills. Lecturers can incorporate self-awareness strategies into their teaching approach: encouraging students to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, modelling self-awareness, being honest about students’ abilities and performance, encouraging critical thinking, providing access to mentors, and having conversations about long term goals.

By being able to confidently predict their successes and failures, students are in a position to assess their learning approaches and make changes where necessary. Through this ongoing process of self-correction, the gap between perceived and objective reality narrows and students become more resilient and more confident – two traits that positively affect performance and well-being.

Lesley Scott

MA (by thesis) Psychology Student

[1] SAGE Journals. 2021. Flawed Self-Assessment: Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace – David Dunning, Chip Heath, Jerry M. Suls, 2004. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 6 June 2021].

[2] Pintrich, 2003, quoted in Blumberg, Developing Learner-Centered Teaching, 2009, p. 15

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