Students suffer from unwarranted self-confidence writes Marlene Zuk, a UC-Riverside biology professor. Her students don’t think their low test scores or inability to answer questions reflects ignorance. They don’t read the book or remember lectures; they can’t discuss the concepts. Yet they believe they deserve high grades. They feel good about their understanding.
On a practice test, a student tried to compare two lines on a graph representing different blackbird nesting habits.
The question asked where a point on one of the lines satisfied a particular condition, and only one answer was correct. The student for some reason had redrawn the lines, as if rewriting the birds’ reproductive history, with the two lines suddenly veering off into a fantasy of communal egg-laying. It was as if she had taken a graph of the exports of China and France and merged them into a new country with a single product.
Once again, I explained how to answer the question, and once again the student was pleased. The error was just a trivial difference of opinion. “Yeah, I get it,” she said. ” I was just thinking of it differently.” You say tomayto, I say tomahto.
No, I wanted to say, you weren’t thinking of it differently, you had it completely wrong; you didn’t understand it at all. But like her many compatriots, she was unlikely to acknowledge that, or admit to a mistake even when she created a version of reality never seen on a map, or in the actions of a blackbird.
. . . confident placidity in the face of error seems to be on the rise. Maybe it’s all that self-esteem this generation of students was inculcated with as youngsters, or maybe it’s the emphasis on respecting everyone else’s opinion, to the point where no answer, even a mathematical one, can be truly wrong because that might offend the one who gave it.
The self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for.