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. 🙂



We all know that memory is an incredible process..the actual in’s and out’s are still widely disputed and most scientists still have only a vague idea how the multiple processes that make up what we call “memory” work. Some aspects of memory that I will touch on here include;

  1. The 3 step process of encoding, storage, and retrieval.
  2. The trajectory of a memory through the sense (perception), through the short term or “working” memory, and finally into our long term memory. (what we consider remembering)
  3. What happens when we lose a memory.

Encoding – Storage – Retrieval

This is the process through which our brain filters out the stimuli we don’t need which is actually most of what is going on around us. The brain is constantly bombarded by sensations and if it were to consciously acknowledge and process all of it…well..we would probably suffer from sensation overload. Perception takes place in the blink of an eye…literally. It only takes a fraction of a second to establish a sensory impression. The process just discussed is summed up as encoding. This is similar to the process with the same name used by computer programers, encoding is the inputting of something.

So you’ve encoded your starts out in your short term memory or your “working memory.” Our professor likes to compare it to an ineffectual mental chalkboard. One commonly held theory states that working memory can hold 7 – 8 things for 20-30 seconds. That time can also be reset by re-stating the information. (such as repeating a phone number to yourself) Memory experts say that the way you store your memories is crucial to how you retrieve them. In order to become a permanent part of your consciousness a thought has to travel from short term memory to long term memory, the way to do that is by repeatedly tracing the thought path it takes to think that thought. Hence the term, practice makes permanent


When we forget something what is actually happening is a breakdown in the three step process discussed above. Sometimes this can be because we did not encode the memory effectively in the first place, maybe we were not paying attention. For instance when you cannot find your keys, maybe when you put them down you were thinking about what to cook for dinner and did not encode sitting them on the refrigerator, out of reach of little hands, now when you go to retrieve the information of where they are it is not there. You have FORGOTTEN where your keys are. Bummer.


Mohs, Richard C..  “How Human Memory Works”  08 May 2007. <;  10 August 2014.

It seems the instructor or our M.O.O.C and the author or the above referenced article differ on the amount of information short term memory holds. Hmm. The tables below are some facts I found interesting about the two types of memory discussed in our lecture on memory.

Working Memory

  • what your currently dealing with
  • holds only 4 bits of information
  • must keep repeating information to hold off natural dissipating processes
  • can be manipulated to hold more
  • inefficient blackboard
  • Used when encountering something new

Long Term Memory

  • Like a large storage warehouse
  • Must be revisited multiple times so it can be found later
  • Has unlimited storage capabilities so information can become lost under other information
  • Fundamental concepts and techniques
  • Spaced Repetition is a method of moving information from the short-term memory to the long-term, it entails repeating the information your trying to learn on a spaced out schedule so as to not attempt to “learn” it in one sitting.
  • Over time metabolic processes cause information that is not properly stored to vanish.
  • Proper storage takes time and practice.

Hope this overview does not make any memory experts or scientist..or even teachers for the matter..cringe. But both babies are napping..AT THE SAME TIME!!! yea..that never I have a few other things to do..this post on memory was one of them. Hope you found it enjoyable..or at least not a total waste of time.  😉

Focused vs. Diffused Mode

One of the key topics that was covered this week that I think would benefit others from discovering is the difference between the FOCUSED mode of thinking and the DIFFUSED mode of thinking.

FOCUSED MODE is just what is sounds like, a concentrated, focused form of thinking

DIFFUSED MODE is a more relaxed thinking state, one the the brain settles into at resting.


“The Pinball Analogy”

If you image the brain like a pinball machine, focused thinking would be your standard difficulty machine with nobs tightly packed and your thoughts bouncing off of those nobs randomly and rapidly. Only through practice do those random paths become ingrained. (The nobs are likened to neurons and neural synapses the pinball) In diffused mode the pinball game is an easier version, the nobs are more widely spaced and the thoughts are freer to take there own path.



Another way of imagining it that made a little more sense than the pinball analogy was the FLASHLIGHT ANALOGY.

This involves visualizing your brain as a flashlight; Diffused mode of thinking could be thought of as a setting on the flashlight designed to cast a broad light not very strongly, while focused mode would cast a very strong light in smaller area.


  • You cannot use both modes of thought at once.
  • Its best practice to toggle between focused and diffused mode.
  • METAPHORS rock!! (as far as learning goes that is)


Its pretty self explanatory how to use our focused modes of thinking, but how do we tap into the relax state of the diffused mode and use that for learning????

Lets look at one of the foremost surrealist painters of the 20th century, Salvador Dali.

the-persistence-of-memory-1931 Picture1.jpg_Dali


Seen above is Salvador Dali and one of his most well known paintings called ironically enough for this lesson, “The Persistence of Memory.” Painted in 1931, “The Persistence of Memory” was a work of surrealism. Surrealist painters considered their artwork to be reminiscent to a dream. Dali’s self described descriptions of his work was as, “Hand painted dream photography.” I’ll save the complicated analysis of this painting for my Art History class but for our purposes lets just say Dali was considered very creative and very free thinking…sound familiar???

Salvador Dali was said to relax and drift off to sleep with a key dangling and upon his dozing off to sleep he would drop the key, it would jangle and startle him awake. This is an example of Dali bouncing between thought modes. He would clear his head and relax his mind until sleep came, entering the diffuse mode, then he would wake up and drag all those wonderful diffuse mode ideas back the focused mode and the results were brilliant works like the painting above.

Also Notable: 

  • Thomas Edison also used a similar approach to travel between thought processes.
  • Thinking about something prior to sleeping or napping will give you a better chance of DREAMING about that thing.
  • Dreaming about it will help you to retain whatever it is that your studying.
  • EXERCISE is a wonderful way to gain entry into the diffused mode of thinking. It is also beneficially in numerous way apart from the physically obvious ones. Those benefits include the generation of new neural pathways in the brain.
  • Sleep acts as a dishwasher and flushes the brain of toxins. (really!)


Until next time…happy learning.


Dali, S. (1931). The persistence of memory [Painting found in Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY]. Retrieved August 8, 2014, from        

Pinball machine, image © Kevin Mendez, 2014.

Salvador Dalí with ocelot and cane, 1965; File:Salvador_Dali_NYWTS.jpg From the Library of              Congress. New York World- Telegram & Sun collection.; Author: Roger Higgins, World   Telegram staff photographer; no copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.