Helping Students More Accurately Assess Their Performance

Written by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.
Published On: July 28, 2014

Are your students overly optimistic about their course grades? It is the time of the semester when reality starts sinking in, although many students in trouble don’t express surprise or concern until after the course has ended. Several studies have documented that students, particularly beginning ones, tend to overestimate how well they’re doing in a course.

I didn’t used to think this was a problem. I thought students who overestimated how well they were doing were talking about the grade they hoped they’d get, not the one they expected to receive. But my thinking has changed. I now believe students are also telling themselves that the grade they want is the one they’re going to get, and if they are, they’re providing themselves reasons not to spend more time and effort on the course. And because so many students aren’t all that motivated to study anyway, a kind of vicious cycle starts in which students think it’s okay not to study because they’re doing fine in the course.

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What’s especially frightening about this is that feedback (things such as low grades on quizzes, first papers, and first exams and comments from teachers expressing concern about performance) doesn’t always change students’ perceptions. They will tell you it’s early in the course and they have lots of time to bring their grade up or that they didn’t really expend much effort because it’s a small assignment or they’ll make up the difference with extra credit. Even as the course moves toward its conclusion, they continue holding on to the fantasy that an ever-growing collection of C’s and D’s is going to magically transform into a B+ or A- at the end of the semester.

So, how do we get these students to more accurately perceive their performance? Doing so is important because the ability to accurately assess how well you’re doing is one of those skills that make getting through life a lot easier and decidedly more pleasurable. Most of us know colleagues who don’t accurately perceive the quality of their work, and that’s an impediment to their success and personal well-being.

Elsewhere in this issue a faculty member describes how he puts a linear regression equation in a spreadsheet that he posts on the course website so that students can predict their course grades. What a creative way to help students correct their grade overestimations. Did you notice, however, that only 50 percent of the students did so, and that didn’t include very many of those earning Ds? It goes back to the earlier point. If you don’t know you’re in trouble, or even if you suspect you might be but don’t bother finding out, you’ve got no reason to worry and no motivation to change your level of effort in the course.

If you grade using a point system based on an absolute standard, where the number of points needed for each grade is shared with students at the beginning of the course (say it’s put in the syllabus), then students can be encouraged to keep track of their points. I used to try to motivate my students to do this by telling them that if they did, they would never need to wonder how they were doing in the course. I reinforced this by giving them a grid they could use to keep track of their points and by reminding them that they should do this whenever I returned a graded assignment. Once again, a surprising number of students never took advantage of this system.

What about a straightforward discussion of the fact that many students overestimate their grades? Maybe you start by talking about whether how well students think they are doing in a course influences the decisions they make about how to study in that course. If they admit that it does, then there’s the hypothetical of, well what if the students’ assumptions about how well they’re doing in the course aren’t correct? And the follow-up discussion is about finding out, facing performance in the course, and then taking the necessary action.

We can and should help students more accurately assess their performance in a course, but Paul Van Auken (referenced in another article in this issue of the newsletter) makes a point not to be forgotten in this discussion: “Students need to be engaged—put in the time and effort, be interested in the material, actively participate in class activities, be intellectually excited about projects—and take responsibility for learning.” (p. 213) As teachers we have the responsibility to do all we can to positively influence the decisions students make about learning. But we can’t make those decisions for them. Learning, whether it’s learning content or learning about learning, is a student responsibility.


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This article originally appeared in the newsletter The Teaching Professor 27.5 (2013): 3. The Teaching Professor is a lively, informative newsletter with a singular purpose: to provide ideas and insight to educators who are passionate about teaching.