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Tuning your Metacognitive Skills

written by Sherri Fisher 5 July 2010

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Girl with test

Girl with test

“I thought I did so well this time.” Sarah looked at her test which was marked D+ on the last page at the bottom right-hand hand corner. She claimed to have spent hours studying the material on the exam, and yet her performance was very poor. Students like Sarah are often described as “not knowing what they don’t know.”  Well-meaning teachers often think the student is merely missing critical information, perhaps because they just need to study harder. Meanwhile the incompetent student often continues to perform at the bottom of the class, even after attending extra help sessions, and is surprised at ongoing poor performance. It just makes no sense.


In Positive Psychology we like to look at instances of what works to discover ways for people to have more pleasure, engagement, meaning, and achievement in their lives. How, then, does studying incompetence lead to improved performance?

The Double Whammy of Incompetence

Competence or the lack of it may be the result of many things, including good versus poor preparation and efficient versus inefficient neuro-developmental style. What highly competent and incompetent students share is this: both miscalibrate the perception of their own and of others’ performance. The difference is that competent students believe their peers have done only slightly better than they have, and so they work to apply success strategies. Incompetent students, on the other hand, believe they have done significantly better than their peers and therefore do not take advantage of strategies to achieve even greater success. How’s that for a counter-intuitive finding?

MH900439399 Kruger and Dunning (2009), in a series of four experiments first published in 1999, found that students performing in the bottom quartile tend to be unable to recognize that their performance is poor compared to that of their peers. Students whose actual performance was at the 12th percentile, for example, overestimated their expected scores by 50 points! They were four times more likely to miscalibrate than their competent peers. They overestimated both their actual scores and their ranks compared to peers. As a consequence, it’s very difficult for such students alone to make the necessary changes to deliver a better outcome, since they believe that they are doing both personally well and better than their peers. In contrast, top students underestimate their performance compared to peers, thinking their peers have done better than they actually have, though not by nearly as much as the poor performers think they have out-scored their peers.

All of us have to work at accurately calibrating our metacognitive or “thinking about thinking” skills. When a person is incompetent because of lack of knowledge, skills, or experience, metacognition is difficult.  Things that get in the way include

  • Explanatory style: Personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations about when things go poorly, such as blaming the teacher or boss or a parent without seeing personal contribution
  • Fixed Mindset: The belief that intellectual ability is a fixed trait to be discovered. With a growth mindset, people believe that intellectual ability is something to be developed through effort and education. Growth mindset is the way to go!
  • Inaccurate self-awareness: Moving on confidently instead of accurately comparing ourselves  to an objective measure or competent peers
  • Misapplication of strengths: For example, being unrealistically optimistic, or failing to be honest about the need to self-regulate

We Believe We Are Above Average

00439830Statistics professors will remind you, tongue-in-cheek, that in the fictitious town of Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.  This year there are 1.65 million new college graduates in the US alone, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Nearly every one of them who prepares a resume and a cover letter in search of work will fall victim to the Lake Wobegon Effect, whereby they will believe that armed with a college degree, lots of knowledge, and maybe even some time spent in an internship, they should be swamped with job offers.

Statistically, of course, it is just not possible for everyone to be above average.  As Kruger and Dunning found, however, the people most lacking in the knowledge and skills for doing well are often extremely unaware of this fact. Unable to benefit from social comparison (yes, sometimes it is good) and recognize the difference between competence and incompetence, they fail to gain insight into how they might change for the better.

You Can Recalibrate Your Thinking

The good news is that people can significantly recalibrate metacognitive skills. By learning strategies that can be used in specific problem-solving settings, students increased the accuracy of their self appraisals. In fact, once bottom quartile study participants gained the metacognitive skills and self-awareness to note their errors, they performed as well as competent students.

A must-read book illuminates ways we can adjust our metacognitive skill and self appraisal. Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph T. Hallinan, reminds us that we must regularly re-calibrate our metacognitive skills even if we are already competent.

  • Keep a written record of hits, misses, and never-attempted items prevents us from a post-hoc view through rose-colored lenses.
  • Value being happy, because happier people make quicker decisions  both more accurately and with less back-and-forth
  • Know how strengths may cloud your vision, making you think you are more virtuous, and thus higher achieving, than you really are.

Not knowing—or learning—how to learn is profoundly disabling. It is unnecessary, too, since teachers can teach students not only what to know but how to know and use information and strategies in the ways that competent students do. Being able to accurately self-assess is an essential social, intellectual, and  life skill. Curriculum can integrate direct instruction about metacognition and self-appraisal skills. To be most effective, teachers would need to learn how to do this for themselves first. Otherwise they, too, can fall into the poor metacognition trap.

A sign in my office reads, “It’s not how hard you work; it’s how you work hard.” When you connect the dots between your efforts and your achievement, it is more obvious what works. What do you do to be competent and to replicate your good work?




Dweck, C.S. (1999), Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hallinan, J. T. (2009). Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average. New York: Broadway Books.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (2009). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Psychology, 1, 30-46.

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Doug Hensch 6 July 2010 - 6:53 am

Sherri – Great synopsis – thanks for posting! I think you bring up another interesting topic for debate that has been on my mind, recently – working in our strengths vs growth mindset.

Gallup (and many others) promote the fact that working in our strengths gives us the greatest chance for success and growth. It is based on personality theory that these are relatively fixed traits and we should use them to the best of our abilities instead of constantly trying to fix our weaknesses.

Carol Dweck, on the other hand, seems to disagree with this. In re-reading some of her work, I came across multiple stories that she tells about people who became successful by working directly on their weaknesses.

Just curious about how you reconcile this? Thanks!


Kathryn Britton 6 July 2010 - 9:32 am


That was my question for Carol Dweck during the recent interview she did for the MentorCoach group. Unfortunately, my question didn’t make it to the top of the pile.

I did notice that she talked about famous tennis players and the difference between those with seemingly fixed mindsets (I’m so talented) versus growth mindsets (I can get even better with work). She speculated that the ones who had fixed mindsets could perhaps have gone much, much further than they did.

The Gallup people have a growth mindset implicit in the statement that

strength = talent (wiring) + knowledge (from study) + skill (from practice)

Their view is that knowledge and skill take you further if they are aligned with talent, not that talent by itself is enough.

I'm very curious about other views about how the two fit together. I hope your question starts a comment stream.


Sherri Fisher 6 July 2010 - 1:01 pm

Hi, Doug-
In the example you cite I would say that the person’s strengths were used in the service of their goals–to correct weaknesses. How else can someone improve? If you struggle with procrastination, you need to use a strength you DO have since “activator” and “achiever” are probably not at the top. All of my clients who struggle with the need to get things out the door need to use strengths. But we directly use them on areas “available” for improvement (weaknesses) that will help the client reach a desired or needed goal.

Sometimes it is the terminology or way that things are operationalized that makes it seem that different research paradigms are in conflict. The APP in MAPP tries to draw what works from seemingly different approaches.

Re: personality…Are you talking about OCEAN “Big Five” personality traits? MBTI ones? I find they operate in a range or are dimensional rather than being even relatively “fixed”. You can have too much or too little of anything depending on the environment in which it is expressed.

Thanks for your comment!
🙂 Sherri

Sherri Fisher 6 July 2010 - 1:29 pm

Hi, Kathryn-
I like to think that being, knowing, and doing strengths are like ingredients in the soup of life. If a person needs/wants/likes a soup with a certain flavor or texture or nutritional value, the choice of what to include and how much to add from those kinds of strengths helps to determine the recipe. Some of us are superb cooks, and others like to call for reservations.

I like the happiness pizza (see Is Career Happiness Up to You? https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sherri-fisher/200810051066) metaphor. A certain amount of your strength or weakness may be genetic, and some is about the environment you are in, but a whole lot can be developed. Not just believing this but actually working effectively with what you have to get more of what you need is a great approach.

A growth mindset is inherently optimistic–“I can work harder and smarter to do better.” Optimistic people are more successful, among many other positive outcomes and traits.

I think the Gallup strengths approach (and probably the VIA, too…) can be diluted by well-meaning folks who want to show that certain strengths beget certain outcomes. Chris Peterson has said that the VIA should not be a selection tool because strengths can be developed. In his “The Real DSM” he shows that some strengths can become weaknesses when they are “in extremis”. A student who says over and over again that a certain teacher is unfair when asked why the homework is not getting done is showing the strength of fairness. He is not using his strengths powers for good, however.

🙂 Sherri

Doug Hensch 6 July 2010 - 2:09 pm

Kathryn/Sherri – Thanks for your responses! I really don’t have anything to add except that while Gallup may be exhibiting a growth mindset in their “equation” for success, I am not sure that they practice it. The more that I read and the more that I hear Gallup ‘speak’ about this, it seems that they are almost completely writing off any attempt to work on a weakness for substantial gain.

Carol Dweck relates one story about Michael Jordan committing to work on his weaknesses during one off-season and then using this throughout his career. But, if he had a weak left hand when dribbling, my guess is that he probably used his strengths around maximizing and/or competition to motivate him through his workouts. Another example might be someone who is terrible at networking but uses curiosity or the relator theme when attending conferences.



Kathryn Britton 7 July 2010 - 9:23 am


I think we’re having a little trouble with terminology here. In particular, we’re using weaknesses as broader compounds while strengths are more elemental. Thus, not getting things done is a compound of several motivational and performance factors, while self-regulation and persistence are more elemental.

I think Gallup is making a cost/benefit argument about where’s the best place to invest effort. I could have a whole cafeteria line of things that I could do with my time and work — which will bring me the greatest growth and results?

In Now, Discover Your Strengths, Clifton and Buckingham talk about talents as essentially brain wiring. But talents by themselves — without study and practice — don’t equal strengths.

Since you brought up Michael Jordan, let’s remember that he tried to become a baseball player. No matter how much work he put in, he wasn’t able to come up with the reaction speed and skill to be outstanding there. He had the wiring for basketball playing — that could of course be improved with practice and attention to specific details. But it was too late for him to get the wiring of a baseball player.

Thus, Michael Jordan could have a growth mindset that kept him practicing basketball successfully, but no amount of growth mindset could make him a great baseball player. He missed the neurological window. Gallup’s “completely writing off any attempt to work on a weakness for substantial gain” doesn’t really contradict the value of a growth mindset — it just channels it.



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