image in mirrorI’ve been struggling to understand why teaching undergraduate students to write for the workplace is so difficult since around 1988.  Quite a while back, I recognized that students have to clear a psychological hurdle to succeed.  I just couldn’t figure out what to call that hurdle. Until now.

In a 1999 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, two Cornell psychologists, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, wrote

. . . those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

This phenomenon, called the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the authors’ honor, is the explanation I’ve been searching for.

Even the brightest and most motivated college students I’ve taught over the years have needed half a semester to accept that their skill at writing something as seemingly simple as a business letter or informative email is inadequate. For those less skilled or motivated, it has required even more time — if it ever occurs. College students aren’t the only writers with issues. Recently, Brian Garner wrote in the ABA Journal:

For many years in lectures, I’ve likened practicing lawyers, when it comes to writing, to 23-handicap golfers who believe that they’re equal to the touring professionals.

My criticism of students’ early attempts is usually dismissed as faulty (with various explanations for my mistake). Though I never let it influence my evaluation of their work, this situation can be problematic for college instructors whose teaching performance is measured with student evaluations.

In a 2004 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Dunning and his colleagues recommended the following educational interventions to improve the accuracy of students’ self-assessment.

  1. Introduce desirable difficulties into instruction: spreading training over several sessions, varying the circumstances of the training, reducing feedback, and providing contextual interference (i.e., practicing different subskills under a random rather than blocked schedule).
  2. Include long-term evaluation of retention of skills.
  3. Require review of past performance calibrated to review by instructor or expert.
  4. Incorporate peer reviews of performance only with instructor training and multiple observations.

As an instructor who has fought the tide by introducing “desirable difficulties,” I can attest to students’ resistance. They are far more comfortable with what Dunning called “massed training”:

The method that most effectively promotes the rapid acquisition of knowledge and the highest levels of proficiency at the end of the lesson—and thus the appearance of learning—is the one that ensures that whatever is learned in the classroom will be forgotten rapidly. The method of instruction that produces these effects is massed training, in which instructors train students in one or a few intense sessions. Massed training has advantages. Students undergoing intense training quickly obtain the relevant skill and then display it at a high level.

So massed training means writers remain amateurs in the long term.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can be counted as one of the obstacles to widespread adoption of plain language writing in the workplace. Individual writers overestimate their writing skill so they’re unwilling to learn how to write differently — especially because crafting a plain language document takes so much time and effort. And those of us who devote our efforts to moving amateurs toward pro writing status by teaching with desirable difficulties, have to accept that amateurs may well be unhappy with us!