Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Are Confident Students a Bad Thing?

Mark Bauerlein has a provocative post over at the new EdNext blog. In it he refers to both a report from three years ago and a study that was just released to support his position that "higher confidence does not go with better math scores" and that "the same discorrelation between confidence and performance may hold in reading." Before you decide that berating your kid is a good idea, I should explain to you why this isn't really correct.

He mentions that in the first study the authors find that countries with more confident students also perform more poorly on the math part of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). But he neglects to mention one tiny detail: that this correlation only holds up across countries, not within them. In other words, students in Japan report, on average, being less confident than students in the United States, but also score higher. On the other hand, students in the U.S. that report being confident in their mathematical abilities tend to score higher than students in the U.S. who report not being confident in their mathematical abilities. As the authors write, "In the TIMSS data, when one looks at the math scores of students within each country, those who express confidence in their own math abilities do indeed score higher than those lacking in confidence. That is true for 40 of the 46 countries with eighth grade test results" (p. 15).

This makes sense if you think about it. Let's say you live in a country where people perform very poorly in math. You know how to add double digit numbers, so you're convinced you're a genius. Meanwhile, in the next country over the kids are very good at math and your cousin thinks he's an idiot because he can only do derivatives but can't find the integral of a number. Then you both take the same test on multiplication and division; you get all the answers wrong and he gets them all right. But you were more confident than him. So confidence must be a bad thing. The problem with this argument is that you didn't base your confidence on your cousin's math ability, you based it on your performance relative to your peers. So it's really no surprise when the kid who's lacking in confidence that sits next to you in class also scores lower than you on the test. Comparing confidence levels across countries is interesting, but of somewhat limited utility because they're all relative to what's happening in their own country. If you want to determine whether or not confidence is correlated negatively or positively with achievement, you should really take a country-centered calculation (maybe even school or class-centered, one could argue), in other words, your confidence minus the average confidence level in your country.

Similarly, based on his summary of the second article one might think that the authors found that higher confidence led to lower scores. But, if one reads the article they would notice the following: "Reading [Self-Concept] was strongly correlated with reading performance in most countries, supporting the importance of this self-belief across cultures." (p. 381). In other words, more confident students scored higher. What the authors focused on is looking at the scores of students relative to their level of confidence in their ability and how under confidence and overconfidence affected scores in countries with different cultural characteristics (you probably won't be able to download the article if you're not on a campus with a subscription, but if you're interested you can e-mail me and I'll send you a copy). In the end, it seems that the underconfident tend to outperform the overconfident. It's unclear whether that's because one can only be classified as overconfident if they don't score super-high (and vice-versa), or because overconfidence is bad. But it's probably a mixture of both. I find the latter at least plausible -- if you think you're great at math, for example, you might be less likely to feel compelled to study for the test tomorrow,.

At any rate, Bauerlein's not wrong when he suggests that overconfidence may be a bad thing. But he's wrong to simply report that multiple studies have found that higher confidence yields worse results. In other words, while more confident students usually score higher on math, overconfidence can be dangerous . . . both in math class and in blogging.

No comments: