Is What We Think We Know, What We Actually Know?

Topic: Assessment, Training

Publication: Academy of Management Learning & Education (JUN 2010)

Article: Self-assessment of knowledge: A cognitive learning or affective measure?

Authors: T. Sitzmann, K.E. Ely, K.G. Brown and K.N. Bauer

Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger


Evaluating the effectiveness of an organizational
training program is a necessary but expensive process.  Oftentimes, the success of a training program is evaluated by how much trainees learn or how much they know after completing the program. The classic post-training test/exam is a great way to do this.  But, because developing and administering well-constructed learning measures can be costly, one option is to simply ask trainees how much they have learned. 
But how “good” are trainees’ self-assessments of their learning/knowledge? That is, how well do self-assessments really measure actual learning/knowledge gain?

In an extensive meta-analysis that included a total of over 41,000 study participants from 166 studies, Sitzmann et al. (2010) found that self-assessments of knowledge and learning areactually more highly related to motivation and satisfaction with training than with actual knowledge/learning. 

In fact, even in training programs that provide trainees with feedback and give
trainees access to information about their learning/knowledge, self-assessments
of learning are more strongly related to motivation and satisfaction than actual

Additionally, Sitzmann et al. found that self-assessments of one’s current knowledge level (How much do I know) are much more strongly related to actual learning than self-assessments of knowledge gain (how much have I learned). In fact, self-assessments of knowledge gain were unrelated to actual learning.

Yet another interesting finding is that self-assessments of learning are more accurate when training is classroom based v. web-based. Sitzmann et al. suggest that classroom-based and blended training allow for trainees to observe others and thus gauge their knowledge or mastery of the topic being trained. Such information is not as readily available in online training.

Though self-assessments of learning are cheap to develop and generally easy to administer, they are not appropriate alternatives to tried and true measures of knowledge gain (e.g., written tests, skill assessments).  Decisions made about training programs (e.g., “It’s a success!”) that are based on trainees’ self-assessments of their own learning may be misinformed, because what trainees think they know, may not be what they actually know!


T., Ely, K.E., Brown, K.G., & Bauer, K.N. (2010). Self-assessment of
knowledge: A cognitive learning or affective measure? Academy of Management
Learning & Education, 9(2), 169-191.