I read an article this week about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it hit me that this is highly relevant to taking a bar exam. In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect, or DKE, is an unconscious psychological phenomenon that makes us unaware of what we don’t know, in situations where we would benefit from more knowledge, and become more competent if we knew what we don’t know!
Tongue twisters aside, the article asks: “Is there any way to fix that? Can you escape this cognitive bias and gain a clear-eyed understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, so you can work on the latter and lean on the former?”
Yes! So says psychologist David Dunning, one of the co-authors of the seminal work on DKE. Here are four main tactics, summarized in Jessica Stillman’s article for Inc.com:
1. Always Be Learning
“His first suggestion is the most obvious. ‘Get competent. Always be learning‘, Dunning urges.” Intelligence is not fixed, it is malleable; the bar exam is not an aptitude test, it is a test of whether you have mastered specific knowledge and skills, and the ability to show your mastery.
2. Beware Beginnings
“The second important point if you’re looking to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect is to be aware of when it’s most likely to strike so you can be extra careful to gather relevant information and expertise at those times. When is prime time for DKE? In short, when you’re new to a skill or topic.” (Note: like when you are studying for your first bar exam).
3. Slow Down
“Unless you’re a world-class expert (and very few of us are), fast decisions are generally more biased decisions, so beware the Dunning-Kruger effect when you’re making quick calls, instructs Dunning.”
“Our most recent research also suggests one should be wary of quick and impulsive decisions…that those who get caught in DKE errors less are those who deliberate over them, at least a little. People who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident error,” [Dunning] explains. “I have found it useful to explicitly consider how I might be wrong…in a decision. What’s wrong with this car deal that seems so attractive? What have I left out in this response about avoiding the DKE?”
Note: This is the heart of self-assessment, essential to improvement and mastery. What did you misunderstand on a practice question? How will you fix that?
4. Know When to Be Confident
“Dunning stresses that confidence isn’t always unmerited and can sometimes be extremely useful, for, say, ‘a general on the day of battle.’ But in-the-moment confidence should be rooted in lots of preparatory self-doubt, learning, and consideration.”
“Before that day, I want a cautious general who over-plans–one who wants more troops, more ordnance, better contingency plans–so that he or she is best prepared for the day of battle,” Dunning says. “I think that analogy works for athletes, too. They don’t use confidence to become complacent, but…to put in the extra effort and strategizing that will help them excel.”
Conclusion: Strategic preparation works! If you have done 2000 practice MBE questions by the time you walk into the real MBE, including the spring MBE workshops we offered this spring, and you have regularly assessed your own performance on those and practice essays and MPTs, you will have earned a solid sense of real confidence. You will know more than you did before doing all those practice questions, and you will know that you did everything possible to succeed. Unlike so much at law school that feels arbitrary, this is within your own control:
Remember, if you want to be entered into a drawing this weekend for the set of Critical Pass MBE flashcards, send me a screenshot of your bar course completion rate as of today, Friday June 16, at 5 pm. You can email it to me until midnight tonight. If your completion rate is higher than your coursewide average completion rate, I will enter your name in a random drawing for the flashcards. You can enter even if you aren’t in Atlanta; I will mail you the set if you win!