Unskilled and unaware of it

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s an interesting psychological insight about how people’s actual knowledge and skill aligns with their perceived knowledge and skill.

People who are not very skilled at a particular task find it very hard to understand the level of skill needed to do that task well. As a consequence, they fail to recognise a truly skilled practitioner when they see one, and they tend to overestimate their own skill. As a people get better at a particular skill, they also get better at accurately estimating how good they are at it. This is true for a wide range of skills and knowledge areas, including grammar, logical thinking, and even humour. It was first described in a 1999 paper by Kruger and Dunning entitled Unskilled and Unaware of it.

Now, here is the problem.

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“I am interested in data visualisation.” – “Great! Try this cupcake.”

Imagine the following situation. You are at a party and chat with someone you’ve just met. You start talking about what you do and what you are interested in. You say something like “I like statistics, and especially how it applies to solving biological problems.” The person you are talking to smiles brightly and then says: “Fantastic! Have you tried braiding your hair?”

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Dear Sir …

“Excellent”, said an e-mail I received recently from a collaborator, “talk to you soon, Stephanie!” This happens to me a lot, in professional contexts. I have been called Stephanie by colleagues and teachers, bosses and students. I have been introduced to a full lecture theatre as Stephanie, I have been invited for job interviews as Stephanie.

I don’t like it.

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How steep are your curves?

I have been in my new job for four months now, and the learning curve has been steep … Wait a minute.

What has the learning curve been?

I never understood the expression “a steep learning curve”. When people say “a steep learning curve” what they mean is that something is difficult to learn and requires a large amount of effort (typically at the beginning). But presumably a learning curve plots the amount of whatever it is you have learnt on the y axis and time or effort or something similar on the x axis.

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Read to learn

I have always loved reading (well, ever since I’ve been able to read. Before that, I loved being read to. And before that, I can’t remember). And I have always had the suspicion that reading has helped me learn languages – first my own, and then others.

Now, when reading in a foreign language, I don’t have a dictionary by my side. I tried at first, but I found it tedious. If I don’t understand a word or a sentence, I’ll just read on. Maybe I’ll understand the next. Or not. But here is what I think: If a word is not important to the story, then it does not matter anyway. If it is important, it will likely show up several more times. If that happens, then its meaning will probably become clear from the context. If it does not become clear from the context but is obviously important, then at some point not knowing the meaning of the word will become sufficiently annoying, and I will finally get out the dictionary and look it up. This rarely happens, however.

For a long time, I have thought that this method of reading is just me being lazy. Turns out, it’s not. It is, in fact, a thing.

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Start MOOCing

I have recently registered for my first Massive open online course (MOOC). Basically these are online classes, delivered by university professors and accessible for free by anyone, anywhere in the world (provided they have internet). A tremendous idea! I decided to take a class on probabilities, both to refresh my knowledge in this area, and to get an idea of what these courses are like. Let me walk you through the experience so far:

First, I got an account at EdX, one of the companies that provide MOOCs. On the front page, you can see a list of participating universities:

EdX_screenshot

You can browse the courses on offers. I decided to enroll for Stat 2.2X, a class offered by BerekelyX, after looking through the course description and requirements:

course_info

This course will take 5 weeks (I am currently in Week 2). Each week, the instructor uploads lecture slides and videos, which students can watch at their convenience:

lecture_screenshot

At the end of each week, a problem set is due, which students can enter through the web interface. In addition, there will be a mid-term exam, and a final. Students can follow their progress through their course with the help of an online progress chart:

progress chart

So far, I am having great fun. The delivery of the lectures is great, and plenty of material is provided for further reading and practise. The workload is considerable (and especially, it’s impossible to take a week off), but since the entire course only lasts a few weeks, that’s fair enough. Students are provided with an online forum where they can discuss problems or ask for help (provided they don’t post answers to the assignment questions).

I have read about how MOOCs are a great resources for high school students preparing for college and for students in developing countries (there is a great article here, if you can read German). For me, it’s a great opportunity for continued professional development and lifelong learning. Also, I just really like doing problem sets. But maybe that’s just me …