To Know You Don't Know: Why Students (Generally) Can't Learn Alone

To Know You Don't Know: Why Students (Generally) Can't Learn Alone

The myth of self-education

Recently, Annie Murphy Paul highlighted the myth of the solitary learner, pointing out that although a handful of famous individuals such as Bill Gates seem to have educated themselves through hard work and intellectual curiosity, this case is far from common. As Paul notes, the idea of learners as self-educators is one of the “urban legends in education” refuted in a recent literature review by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen J.G. Merriënboer. As Kirshner and Merriënboer point out, learners often do not control their own learning successfully because they lack the standards by which to judge their own learning, the knowledge to monitor their progress toward a standard, and the ability to change unsuccessful strategies in a specific domain.

Missing: metacognitive knowledge

Further, research in psychology demonstrates that people with the lowest levels of skills in various domains (from grammatical writing to recognizing funny jokes) have the most inaccurate assessments of their own skills (Kruger & Dunning, 1999).  This is because people lacking expertise in a particular domain also lack the metacognitive knowledge to recognize their level of performance in that domain. In other words, people need guidance to gain skills, and only someone with domain knowledge knows enough to see where a student’s knowledge is lacking.

What to do

What does this mean for learning and education? That learners, particularly novices, require the guidance of individuals who are have both content knowledge to impart and pedagogical knowledge about how to make this knowledge useful and accessible. Skilled teachers not only know what information students lack, they know what concepts are often confusing and where existing knowledge can help or hinder the acquisition of new knowledge.

For most of us, the metacognitive ability to assess the gaps in our learning and the adequacy of our approaches emerges from partnerships with teachers and fellow learners. Bill Gates may be a model to emulate in domains such as business acumen and philanthropy, but the majority of people need a different approach to learning than the one taken by Gates.


Jennifer Randall Crosby, Ph.D.Jennifer Randall Crosby is the Associate Director for the Social Sciences at the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning.