Self-knowledge is the ultimate quest. Every cultural tradition affirms this fundamental truth. The path of self-knowledge is the most rewarding journey we can undertake — yet it is also the hardest. We are challenged by our family histories, by our cultures, by our own traumas and vulnerabilities. And yet we must persist, as all the old tales say, so that we discover the essential unity between ourselves and all of humanity. And so, on this page, we provide some considerations for enhancing learning by means of looking inward.

Identity Development

A self-aware learner treats the development of identity, beliefs, and values as personal learning activities. A spectrum of skill in this area might resemble the following:

Initial: Learners may form their identities, values, and beliefs based on external pressures, exhibiting an overreliance on others for reassurance and guidance.

Emerging: Learners have begun to feel tension between external pressures and emerging awareness of their own internal values.

Developing: Learners have begun to explore and reflect upon their internal values.

Proficient: Learners have taken responsibility for crafting their own identity, beliefs, and values. They are responsive to others’ input but chart their own course. [1]

An effective learning environment encourages development along this spectrum through projects that are not assigned but chosen by learners based on their identities, values, and beliefs, and through the frequent use of group and individual reflection. Naturally, we would expect to see various levels of skill in these areas, which on a spectrum might yield the following range of assignments:

  • Learners exhibit minimal awareness of their own values and social identity. They lack internal coordination and articulation of the components of their identity. Their need for the approval of others (including and perhaps especially instructors) yields an externally defined identity that is susceptible to changing external pressures. Consequently, their assignments tend to be focused on mirroring the values of the instructor, or the discipline, rather than inhabiting and holding their own values and identity. These students typically do well in classrooms in which the task of learners is simply to reflect back, to the instructor, what the instructor has indicated the learners should know.
  • Learners exhibit evolving awareness of their own values and a sense of identity distinct from others. The tension between emerging internal values and external pressures prompts self-exploration, which in turn encourages learners to take responsibility for crafting own identity. Their assignments reflect a growing ability and willingness to express their own views and perspectives. These learners typically do well in classes that involve debate and discussion, and that value personal expression.
  • Learners choose and craft their own values and identity. They cultivate an internally generated sense of self that regulates interpretation of experience and choices. Sometimes their assignments challenge established norms and rules. These learners question deeply, ask hard questions, and do not accept simple answers. Sometimes they do not do well in traditional academic environments, which can be rigid and prescriptive, and it is relatively common for them to leave post-secondary education (with or without a degree) with a sense of disappointment or lost opportunity. Conversely, others in this group find mentors and supportive peers to help forge healthful pathways through.

Growth Orientation

Self-aware learners treat the capability for learning as a learnable skill. They treat challenges in the learning process as opportunities to grow as learners and as people. The spectrum of capacities here is quite diverse:

Initial: Learners may view the ability to learn as fixed, and may view setbacks and obstacles as indications of their limitations.

Emerging: Learners have begun to take risks and experience successes that challenge their views about learning.

Developing: Learners have begun to explore and reflect upon their experiences and views about learning.

Proficient: Learners reflect upon learning as a learnable skill. They view challenges as opportunities to grow their ability to learn.

Effective learning environments encourage development along this spectrum by focusing as much on the process of learning as on the outcome.

Some learners regard learning itself as learnable. They believe that, through effort, their minds can get bigger and stronger, just as their bodies can. They see learning as a lifelong process, and they gain pleasure and self-esteem from expanding their ability to learn. Having to try is experienced positively: it’s when you are trying that your ‘learning muscles’ are being exercised. A growth orientation includes a sense of getting better at learning over time, and of growing, changing and adapting through the whole of life. There is a sense of history and hope. The opposite of growth orientation is fixity. Learners with a fixed mindset believe that the ability to learn is predetermined. They therefore experience difficulty negatively, as revealing their limitations. They are less likely to see challenging situations as opportunities to become a better learner. [2]

In our research, a pattern of transformation seemed to emerge in the context of this dimension:

  • Learners experience comfort with the status quo.
  • Learners are confronted with a tension, for example, between their beliefs and reality, between their identity and others’ expectations, or between the status quo and how things might be.
  • Learners explore and reflect on this tension.
  • Learners undergo an internal reorganization and thereby resolve this tension and reemerge transformed in some way.

Mezirow’s research affirms and elaborates on this pattern:

  • A disorientating dilemma.
  • Self-examination with feelings of shame, fear, guilt or anger.
  • A critical assessment of assumptions.
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared.
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions.
  • Planning a course of action.
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans.
  • Provisional trying of new roles.
  • Building self-confidence and competence in new roles and relationships.
  • Reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective. [3]


Self-aware learners persevere constructively when faced with setbacks and obstacles. They keep going when things are hard. As we might expect, skills vary:

Initial: Learners may give up in the face of setbacks or obstacles, and avoid challenging opportunities so as to avoid risking failure.

Emerging: Learners require a good deal of guidance and encouragement to persevere, but they make attempts where they previously might have given up.

Developing: Learners try a variety of strategies, some successful and some not, to deal with disappointments and difficulties in the learning process.

Proficient: Learners demonstrate the ability to manage frustration well, quickly recover a sense of hope, and find ways of overcoming setbacks and obstacles.

Therefore, an effective learning environment encourages perseverance through group encouragement, guidance, and mentorship — which, in turn, are deeply connected to human vulnerability and frailty, as follows.

Dependence and fragility

Dependent and fragile learners are more easily disheartened when they get stuck or make mistakes. Their ability to persevere is reduced, and they are likely to seek and prefer less challenging situations. They are dependent upon other people and external structures for their learning and for their sense of self-esteem. They are passive imbibers of knowledge, rather than active agents of their own learning. The opposite of dependence is resilience and robustness. Learners with these characteristics like a challenge, and are willing to ‘give it a go’ even when the outcome and the way to proceed are uncertain. They accept that learning is sometimes hard for everyone, and they are not frightened of finding things to be difficult. They have a high level of ‘stickability’, and they can readily recover from frustration. They are able to ‘hang in’ with learning even though they may, for a while, feel somewhat confused or even anxious. They don’t mind making mistakes every so often, especially because they can learn from them. [4]


Ultimately, learners must be able to evaluate their own learning, to assess the results produced through that learning. Some are more advanced than others:

Initial: Learners may exhibit overconfidence or lack of confidence about their skills and abilities, about how much they have learned, and about the quality of the work they produce.

Emerging: Through peer and instructor feedback, learners have begun to understand how their assessments differ from those of others.

Developing: Learners integrate others’ feedback, and in doing so develop in their ability to reflect upon their skills and abilities, learning, and work.

Proficient: Learners’ self-assessments are largely accurate and consistent with the assessments of knowledgeable others.

An effective learning environment encourages the development of self-assessment through the use of group and individual reflection and self-assessment. Accurate self-evaluation and performance go hand-in-hand, particularly when students are underperforming. However, the relationship between feedback and self-evaluation is complicated. Research suggests that gaining visibility into others’ performance and receiving feedback assists only high-performing learners in accurately assessing themselves, but developing a growth orientation indirectly helps underperforming learners through increasing their motivation and therefore their skill level. (See, for example, Dunning and Kruger’s work on metacognition and self-evaluation.)

Most learners are not adept at identifying the limits of their knowledge and expertise. Indeed, in many social and intellectual domains, people are unaware of their incompetence, innocent of their ignorance. Where they lack skill or knowledge, they greatly overestimate their expertise and talent, thinking they are doing just fine when, in fact, they are doing quite poorly… if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own. In short, incompetence means that people cannot successfully complete the task of metacognition, which, among its many meanings, refers to the ability to evaluate responses as correct or incorrect.

A good deal of research demonstrates that poor performers have more difficulty with metacognitive judgments than their more competent peers do. Relative to learners who are doing well, those doing poorly on a college exam do not as successfully distinguish which individual questions they are getting right from which they are getting wrong (Sinkavich, 1995). Poor readers are less accurate than more able readers in judging what they comprehend from a passage of text (Maki & Berry, 1984). Learners unskilled in grammar provide less accurate “grades” of the grammatical performances of others than do their more skilled counterparts (Kruger & Dunning, 1999, Study 3).

This double-curse explanation also suggests a crucial hypothesis: If poor performers are given the skills necessary to distinguish correct from incorrect answers, then they would be in a position to recognize their own incompetence. Of course, this hypothesis comes with a paradox: If poor performers had the skills needed to distinguish accuracy from error, they would then have the skills needed to avoid poor performance in the first place. They would no longer be incompetent.

Top performers also suffer a burden, albeit one that differs from that of their less-skilled counterparts, in that they tend to underestimate their percentile rank relative to the people with whom they compare themselves. Their underestimation is usually statistically significant (Ehrlinger et al., 2003; Haun et al., 2000; Hodges et al., 2001; Kruger & Dunning, 1999).

This underestimation has a different source than the overestimation of poor performers. Top performers tend to have a relatively good sense of how well they perform in absolute terms, such as their raw score on a test. Where they err is in their estimates of other people — consistently overestimating how well other people are doing on the same test (Fussell & Krauss, 1992). As a result, they tend to underestimate how their performance compares with that of others. One can disabuse top performers of this misperception by showing them the responses of other people. They then tend to realize how unique and distinctive their performances are, providing more positive and accurate self-evaluations. [5]

Part of why the dramatic overestimation demonstrated by poor performers is so fascinating is precisely because they show dramatic overconfidence on tasks about which they have likely received substantial feedback in the past. While this issue is beyond our scope, we remain fascinated by the question of why it is that poor performers do not give accurate performance evaluations on familiar tasks. It seems that poor performers do not learn from feedback that suggests a need to improve. Hacker, Bol, Horgan, & Rankow (2000) provided direct evidence for this failure to learn from feedback when they tracked learners during a semester-long class. As time went on, strong learners became more accurate in predicting how they would do on future exams. The poorest performers did not — showing no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback, that they were doing badly. As a consequence, they continued to provide overly optimistic predictions about how well they would do in future tests. We hope that future research might shed light on the motivational and cognitive contributors to this failure to update predictions in the light of negative feedback on past performances.

If one cannot rely on life experience to teach people about their deficits, how are people to gain self-insight? While this seems a difficult task, there are clues in the psychological literature that suggest strategies for gaining self-insight. If a lack of skill leads to an inability to evaluate the quality of one’s performances, one means of improving metacognitive ability — and thus self-insight — is to improve one’s level of skill. Kruger and Dunning (1999) found that training learners in logic did, indeed, improve their ability to distinguish correct from incorrect answers and, concurrently, improved the quality of their performances. We might then encourage greater self-insight just by encouraging learning.

Surely we cannot expect individuals to gain some level of competence in all areas just so that they may better understand their strengths and weaknesses. However, it is quite possible to encourage a mindset that leads to greater excitement about learning and, by extension greater self-insight. Dweck and colleagues find that encouraging beliefs in the malleability of traits leads to a host of behaviors that might contribute to more accurate perceptions of one’s abilities (see Dweck, 1999). This approach might lead to more accurate self-assessment for the same reason that Kruger and Dunning’s (1999) training in logic was effective — by improving learners’ levels of skill. School children who are taught that intelligence is malleable get more excited about learning, become more motivated in the classroom and achieve better grades. Thus, teaching individuals that intelligence is malleable might lead to more accurate self-assessments because this measure leads to an improvement of knowledge and skill that, in and of itself, promotes greater self-insight.

In addition, teaching individuals that traits and, in particular, intelligence is malleable also leads to a greater openness to challenging new tasks (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hong, Lin, Wan, Dweck, & Chiu, 1999). Experience with a variety of tasks is likely to provide learners with extensive feedback from which they may garner information about their abilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, recent research reveals that individuals who hold a view that intelligence is malleable make far more accurate assessments of the quality of their performance than do those who believe intelligence to be fixed (Ehrlinger & Dweck, 2007).

Often, those with a malleable view of intelligence are not at all overconfident on tasks that inspire dramatic overconfidence in those with a fixed view of the trait. Further, teaching individuals about the malleability of intelligence results in less overconfident assessments of performance (Ehrlinger & Dweck, 2007). Thus, teachers might help learners to better identify their strengths and where they need to improve just by imparting knowledge and also by teaching an incremental view of intelligence. [6]

Self-Management and Self-Reflection

Of course, a self-aware learner must be able to apply emotional self-management and metacognitive skills during the learning process. They must also be able to do so when charting and reflect upon their own course of learning. And, naturally, skills appear on a continuum:

Initial: Learners may not have much insight into their own learning process. They may persist in using strategies that do not work well for them, are unable to estimate how much time and resources learning tasks require, and may not know how to recover when disappointed or frustrated.

Emerging: Learners have become aware of and dissatisfied with the gap between how they would like to perform, and how they are currently performing.

Developing: Learners experiment with new strategies, which may or may not be successful, and seek the support and input of others.

Proficient: Learners plan, monitor, and adapt their learning and learning strategies to the task at hand. They accurately assess how much time and what resources a task will require, and they know how to repair their mood when they face setbacks.

Therefore, an effective learning environment encourages the development of self-management and metacognitive skills through the use of group and individual discussion and reflection about learners’ processes and strategies for approaching challenging tasks. In turn, this leads to a wider view, a more strategic awareness in which learners develop the capacity to become more sensitive to their own learning. They are interested in becoming more knowledgeable and more aware of themselves as learners. They like trying out different approaches to learning to see what happens. They are reflective and good at self-evaluation. They can judge how much time, or what resources, a learning task will require. They are able to talk about learning and about themselves as learners. They know how to repair their own emotional mood when they get frustrated or disappointed. They like being given responsibility for planning and organizing their own learning. The opposite of ‘strategic’ is robotic. Learners with these characteristics appear to be less self-aware, and are more likely to confuse self-awareness with self-consciousness. [7]

Selected Sources

  1. Baxter Magolda, M. (2008). The evolution of self-authorship. In Knowing, Knowledge and Beliefs (pp. 45-64). Springer Netherlands.
  2. Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P., & Claxton, G. (2004). Developing an effective lifelong learning inventory: the ELLI project. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11(3), 247-272.
  3. cited in Erickson, D. M. (2007). A developmental re-forming of the phases of meaning in transformational learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 58(1), 61-80.
  4. Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P., & Claxton, G. (2004). Developing an effective lifelong learning inventory: the ELLI project. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11(3), 247-272.
  5. Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83-87.
  6. Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., Banner, M., Dunning, D., & Kruger, J. (2008). Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 105(1), 98-121.
  7. Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P., & Claxton, G. (2004). Developing an effective lifelong learning inventory: the ELLI project. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11(3), 247-272.