Illusions of Learning / Competence

       You wake up bright and early the morning of test day, eat a nutritious breakfast, and smile to yourself in the mirror while brush your pearly whites, You know this stuff, you studied, you’ve got this one in the bag, is the mantra that plays over and over in your head while your drive to school. Before the test comes around you take a deep breath and silently remember all the hours you spent reading your text last night and smile. The next set of events in this scenario can go anyway really, you can either;

  • Get the test and realize you are ill prepared and guess your way through using eenie-meenie-miney-mo knowing you’ve failed.
  • Complete the test and think you did well only to get back a failing paper and be completely befuddled.
  • Know you were not prepared but feel like you at least managed to pull out a passing grade.

The exact train of events is irrelevant. The result is what matters, or lack thereof in this case. The scenario detailed above has happened to all of us at some point or another. It is an example of what Professor Oakley has described to us as an “Illusion of Competence” (Refered to as an illusion of learning in the grading rubric) 

Illusions of Competence

This is a phenomenon that occurs when students incorrectly gauge their knowledge with certain information. These illusions of competency are usually no fault of the students but rather the result of ineffective study methods. According to Professor Oakley, simply having a desire to learn and spending sufficient time with the material will NOT guarantee mastery. While those two things are generally necessary, proven effective study methods are also required. Some of those techniques will be covered in this section.

One of the first steps in shattering illusions of competence is to know yourself and be able to identify when your deliberately misleading yourself. (to know when your fooling yourself!)  Another one of the critical pieces is to practice effective study techniques, these are techniques that have been scientifically proven as methods that create mastery with material. Some of those highly effective, proven study skills include;

  • Using self-testing, such as recall, often. For example, after reading a section of a textbook to turn the page and attempt to “recall” the main ideas of what you just read. Another effective form of self-testing would be flashcards. Whatever works best for you. Anything but subsequent, passive reading. Passively reading a text has proven to be a waste of valuable study time. Unless, you let time pass between readings, then it can be considered spaced repetition and is helpful, not as helpful as active forms of self-testing, but better than nothing. 
  • Minimize highlighting and underlining- This is a big one for me personally! According to Professor Oakley the actual act of using your hand to do the highlighting and underlining creates a false sense of mastery in the brain. Also the highlighted text can be mistaken for something that has been logged into your mental database when, in fact, it has not. A highly effective alternative to highlighting and underlining is to jot down key concepts, ideas, and notes in the margins of the text. If you insist of highlighting try to keep it to one sentence or less per paragraph.
  • Making mistakes is actually good for your learning process. When mistakes are made in a no-risk situation like self-testing they can function as a road map for what NOT to do ad help correct flaws in your thinking. Learn to relish your mistakes because chances are you will not make the same one twice. (hopefully!)
  • Avoid practicing only the “easy” stuff- Another highly effective study technique is called Deliberate Practice, this is actual the exact opposite of practicing only the easy stuff. In deliberate practice you focus on what you find the most difficult first. Deliberate practice is often said to be the difference between a good student and a great student. When you overlearn the easy stuff you can create a false sense of mastery and waste your time.
  • Avoid jumping directly into the homework without first reading the text, attending the lectures, and/or gaining some knowledge on the topics. This is a common mistake made by students. You should let the learning take its most nature route, not try to “outsmart” the information by taking shortcut. 
  • 2 Minute Picture-walk thrus; These are a great way to start learning new material. It involves taking a brief (2 minute) glance at the material, reading headings, looking at pictures, charts, etc. to get a sense of the main ideas and concepts you will be learning. This should be done prior to any readings and is not a substitution for in-depth readings by any means. 
  • Interleave your material when studying; This is a GREAT was to become fluent with the material. Just as important as knowing HOW to use certain information, is knowing WHEN to use it…and also WHEN NOT to. Interleaving is the act of jumbling up problems from every place the material is drawn from. Solving problems that take different approaches and methods of problem solving will help you information become more accessible.
  • Study in different places when possible; Doing so will alleviate any physical clues that you can pick up from your environment. And since chances are that the location you study in is not the location you will be tested in, being able to recall the information, whatever your physical location, can help with that. 
  • Have Faith in the Law of Serendipity; which says that lady luck favors those who try. This can help you if you become intimidated by the sheer volume of the material you are attempting to learn. Just breath and start. Once you start the neural discomfort you felt prior to studying it, is said to ease within 30 seconds. If that is not a reason to stop procrastinating I don’t know what is. I would rather be incredibly overwhelmed and neurally stressed out for 30 seconds than stressed out and procrastinating for weeks, wouldn’t you??



 Well, I hope some of these suggestions will prove helpful in making better learners out of all of you! Have a great day everyone….

Up next is Week 2 in Action where we will look at a personal study problem I have and how I use the tools presented during week 2 to begin correcting it. 

It is a beautiful late-summer day here in Connecticut and I am going to take my little ones for a trip to the park. I think we may walk there and my 2.5 year old can ride his big wheel. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Illusions of Learning / Competence

  1. Pingback: Review of Objectives | Ako si Teacher Jim

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