Unskilled and unaware in the classroom: College students’ desired grades predict their biased grade predictions

Michael J. Serra, Kenneth G. DeMarree

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


People tend to be overconfident when predicting their performance on a variety of physical and mental tasks (i.e., they predict they will perform better than they actually do). Such a pattern is commonly found in educational settings, in which many students greatly overestimate how well they will perform on exams. In particular, the lowest-performing students tend to show the greatest overconfidence (i.e., the “unskilled-and-unaware” effect). Such overconfidence can have deleterious effects on the efficacy of students’ short-term study behaviors (i.e., underpreparing for exams) and long-term academic decisions (i.e., changing one’s academic major to an “easier” topic or dropping out of school completely). To help understand why students’ grade predictions are often overconfident, we examined the hypothesis that students’ grade predictions are biased by their desired levels of performance, which are often much higher than their actual levels of performance. Across three studies in which actual students made predictions about their exam performance in their courses, we demonstrated that students’ grade predictions are highly biased by their desired grades on those exams. We obtained this result when students predicted their exam grades over a week before the exam (Study 1), immediately after taking the exam (Study 2), and across the four course exams in a single semester (Study 3). These results are informative for understanding why the “unskilled-and-unaware” pattern of performance predictions occurs, and why people in general tend to be overconfident when making both physical and mental performance predictions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1127-1137
Number of pages11
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • Metacognition
  • Overconfidence
  • Predictions of performance
  • Unskilled and unaware
  • Wishful thinking


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