Unequal Competence: The Gap Between Passing and Learning

My recent discoveries suggest that “good students” — those with decent skills and who work hard — enjoy consistent academic success in settings with two distinct academic conditions. Fortunately for them, many courses have these conditions. This post shares the two conditions and includes quotes from students who learned to learn when these conditions are not met.

Ideally, confidence flows from competence. We feel confident in the areas in which we are most competent. However, during my recent consultancies, I discovered a flaw in the competence = confidence equation, and this flaw is a key development in my 20-year research into why good students perform poorly in college.

During my two-year stint at a private university in Ohio, phenomena I’ve observed at many institutions played out quite plainly before me, and I think these discoveries have broader implications for the higher education community.

But I’m most interested in what you think.

The students I worked with at this institution entered college with high academic achievement. They all graduated in the top 10% of their high school class, and they entered college as confident scholars. During my interactions, it was evident that these students’ confidence was based on a set of perspectives and practices that they had successfully exploited throughout their pre-college academic experience.  They possessed the kind of discreet academic assurance that is built by the accumulation of high achievements through hard work over an extended period of time.

All of the students were aspiring scientists who lived and breathed science. I got to know a core group of them quite well over the two-year relationship, training them in metacognitive peer assistance, observing them administer assistance, and informally conversing with them. They “geeked out” on science stuff.

However, I was brought in to solve a historical problem of performance disparities among underrepresented and well-represented students. (I will share more about the elegant solution I developed in future posts. The project, Clearing the Path: Helping Underrepresented Students Travel the Path from Hard Work to High Performance, is actively and successfully solving those performance disparities problems). In this short post, I’d like to point out a key observation with the hopes of generating discussion with colleagues, students, and parents for whom the findings resonate.

My Observation

The competencies that get high-achieving students into college are not the competencies that will get them through college. While that statement isn’t surprising, some of the nuances I discovered are interesting.

Many of our best college students are skilled learning technicians, but they are unskilled at managing their own learning. They operate tactically rather than strategically. These studious young adults have been saddled with a laundry list of task-specific and discipline-constrained tactics. By default, they use tactics, such as Cornell’s notes, flashcards, and concept maps to pass tests without meaningfully learning the material.

This tactical approach to academic work has some merit, but it seems only applicable when academic courses meet either of the two conditions described below.

Condition #1) Students possess strong background knowledge in the course.  

Because these students tend to have fairly well-organized minds, and the tactics mentioned above are useful in this context, they can successfully retrieve information from their mental storehouse and match it with various types of assessments.

Condition #2: Students have all of the “ingredients” needed to produce the required learning outcomes.

When all of the content and concepts are clearly provided, much like a recipe, these students will perform well. They excel when all of the givens are known, and their task is “simply” following the steps, procedures, process, etc. Because these students are accustomed to hard work, they will invest the necessary time to memorize and meticulously follow all of the steps.

Our successful students have a high degree of competence in these situations and their confidence soars in these settings. But when they encounter material in which they’ve had little to no previous exposure, they are surprised by their level of incompetence, so they become anxious.

Listen to how this bright student summarized her experience (post metacognitive training):

Metacognition has greatly impacted my own learning because I am now aware of how my thinking and interpreting of information compare to what my professors expect of me. Prior to this experience, it would have never occurred to me that the way in which I was thinking and processing information may not be aligned with my professors’ expectations, and, therefore, could be making a course more difficult for me than it needs to be.

                                   Kristina (sophomore student)

Without a concrete strategy, they double on “go-to” tactics, such as rereading, reorganizing their notes, repeatedly meeting with the professor or seeking perpetual academic assistance. These efforts are noble, but they don’t help students evolve from study technicians to learning managers.

Being a skilled technician is an entirely different competency than being a manager of one’s learning. The former is great when conditions one and two are met. But one thing the COVID-19 virtual learning experience has made clear is that when conditions #1 and #2 are not met, students, educators and institutions struggle.

Just imagine if students knew how to learn outside of those contexts before COVID-19 hit, the move to remote learning would have been seamless. Students would have had the metacognitive infrastructure needed to function as truly autonomous thinkers and independent learners. Their confidence would have been rooted in the proper set of competencies, and perhaps their academic abilities (and by proxy higher education) would have been validated rather than challenged.

Rather than imagine, let this student’s experience give you confidence in what can happen when students possess the proper competencies.

After being trained in what metacognition means and helping other students with this form of thinking strategy, it has not only had a positive impact on my ability to learn, but it has helped a number of my students improve their grades. Metacognition helped to expand my mindset and hone in on my weaknesses in order to become a more efficient student and effective learner! 

Mitchell (sophomore student)

Questions for the Road

  • So, can the students you encounter learn when conditions 1 and 2 are not met?
  • Can they learn when they know little to nothing about the material that is being covered and when all of the pieces are not provided?
  • Can they properly pace their learning, judge their proximity to their learning targets and make strategic adjustments to expedite their learning if needed?

So, if we want to close any of the gaps that plague higher education, let’s equip students with real metacognitive learning competencies because they will need them to thrive in school and in life.

I’d love your thoughtful response. The stage is yours:)!


  1. David Sacks, PhD

    Having recently read Whistling Vivaldi and listening to an interview with Claude Steele on a recent Hidden Brain podcast. I would be interested to know if you incorporated stereotype threat as part of your work. Also, my dissertation research focused on self-regulated learning and I wonder how much of that you took into consideration.

    • Leonard Geddes

      Thanks for sharing Dr. Sacks. So, I am aware of stereotype threat, and I believe it plays a role in students’ work as well as imposter syndrome. Yet, I don’t emphasize those constructs as much.

      I have seen that students will thrive in cognitively complex environments when the following conditions are met:
      1) students have a defined process for doing academic work (academic work is a process, so a process is needed. However, students have tactics, not a process.)
      2) the process can be universally applied (because we [educators] tend to view academics through silos, few believe this is possible.)
      3) students can control the process on a granular level (meaning that they can manipulate it while they are actually doing academic work)

      When students can do these things, academic success only comes down to effort. However, without these conditions being met, then they often labor in vain.

      Finally, self-regulate is a requirement if we envision students operating as autonomous thinkers and independent learners. I use the metacognitive regulation stages of planning, monitoring and evaluating.

      Check out these playlists for a window in my work:
      Metacognitive Teaching Tactics Playlist: https://tinyurl.com/Meta-Teaching-Tactics-Playlist
      Student Study Tactics Playlist: https://tinyurl.com/21-Savage-Learning-Tips

  2. Margaret Major

    As I read this article I immediately thought of Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination theory. Competence is one of the three basic psychological needs (relatedness and autonomy are the other two.) The interplay between these three needs influences motivation. This leads me to contemplate if a connection can be made between metacognitive thinking and motivation. In other words, by equipping learners with metacognitive strategies, can we increase intrinsic motivation and subsequently persistence?

    • Leonard Geddes

      Great insight Margaret. Metacognition has linked with a host of student success factors, including motivation. Here’s what I have seen in my work with students. When students develop a metacognitive perspective and sound metacognitive practices, they switch from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control. In other words, they realize they have greater agency and influence over their academic situation. This is a seismic shift from the “psuedo-work” approach that leaves students to “hope” that the way they study will produce outcomes that are aligned with the outcomes that are being assessed.

      Metacognition moves students to “know-so” land, which is where they are certain that the outcomes they produce will match those that are being assessed. I summarize this process in this way: When students think well, they learn well and perform well — and metacognition is the key to making this sequence work!

      Check out these playlists for a window in my work:
      Metacognitive Teaching Tactics Playlist: https://tinyurl.com/Meta-Teaching-Tactics-Playlist
      Student Study Tactics Playlist: https://tinyurl.com/21-Savage-Learning-Tips

  3. Irene Knokh

    Very thoughtful article. I’m also curious how this is tied to impostor syndrome (school K-12 or college, or both, and workplace). Part of the challenge with impostor syndrome, is growth. It’s very hard to “break out of the shell,” whether you’re a student-or a professional in the workplace. Metacognition is part of the “growth mindset.”

    • Leonard Geddes

      I know less about imposter syndrome than other student success factors, such as resiliency, locus of control, self-efficiency, etc. However, research consistently shows that improving students’ metacognitive skills impacts all of the other areas. Here’s my take on it:

      Academic work requires a repeatable universal process. However, many students have gotten through school without a process for learning. As one student from a prestigious boarding school once told me, “My school didn’t teach us how to learn, they taught us how to not be outworked by anyone.” When his hard work didn’t pay off, he felt like a fraud, like he didn’t belong, like an imposter, despite his academic pedigree. When he learned a process for academic work, he could regulate and control his learning. As he developed a more acute explanation for his success, he could control his learning and performance better. And He no longer felt like an imposter.

      Imagine two girls who grew up taking dance lessons their entire lives. But one of the students learned how to dance, but did no learn the language and lenses that expert dancers use, but the other student did. Now, fast forward to both of them being in a college dance program. Their teachers are speaking from the lenses and language of the field. The student who follows the teachers (because she has an explanatory understanding of dance) will feel like she belongs while the other one will likely feel like an imposter.


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