Illusion of Learning: It’s Not Just You!

By Sandy Baker

Illusion of learning, also known as illusion of competence is when an individual incorrectly gauges how much they know about certain information. Picture this, you’re sitting in a statistics class and you’re taking notes, like the good noodle you are. Your professor is flying over what the assumptions are for an ANOVA and you think you’ve got it. You’re asking questions and you are answering question the professor is asking you. Then, you go to work on homework and you stare at the question blankly and think to yourself “what the heck is this?”. That, my friends, is illusion of learning. I think we can all agree that this has got to be one of the worst things a student can face in education (minus all-nighters featuring Red Bull binges). You end up getting upset with yourself because “I just went over this how can I not do it?” but remind yourself this, you cannot recall what you didn’t learn.

Why does this happen? Our brains have two locations for learnings. One, the small fast brain, also known as short-term memory, and the large slow brain (long-term memory). While learning material by seeing, doing or discussing material our minds create patterns to solidify the information into our slow brain. Illusion of knowledge happens when the information does not get put into a pattern and transferred into long-term memory.

But don’t worry! Illusion of learning, as frustrating as it is, can be beneficial! It gives you more motivation to solidify your learning. So basically, the more irritated you get because of the illusion, the more likely you are to study.

Here are some steps to help you solidify your learning:

Visualize the information after reading it. If you replay what you just read in your head it’ll help your recall. Learn the information in smaller chunks. You’re not going to learn all the information in one big study session. An example used by Vijai Pandey of LinkedIn, instead of studying for forty hours in one week, try two hours per week for twenty weeks. Next, keep going over the information. Because our brains delete information it doesn’t think is important means that the information you’re trying to learn could get deleted. Discuss the information with others. Do some homework or a small project with it, even if your instructor doesn’t tell you to. Self-test! Self-testing is when you close your studying tools and try to recall the information you just went over. This will help you acknowledge what you actually learned versus what is an illusion. Stop rereading! Rereading only enhances your fluency with the words. You’re able to reread the information quicker because you’ve read it before, not because you know it!

Illusion of knowledge is practically a trap. We trick ourselves into believing we know something yet we can’t recall it. When reading a chapter of a book we understand it as we go, most of the time. But once we close the book and the words disappear we have a hard time recalling the material that was just read. If things are already highlighted in a book, we think that it is important information without reading the material around it, so we memorize that one line without knowing what we are actually reading. If the solution to a math problem is shown while we do the problem, we aren’t actually learning how to do the problem, we’re just trying to find a way to get to the solution shown. Lastly, like stated previously, we study too much! I know, I know. College is practically an energy drink infused, study all the time crisis but the “too much studying” means too much in one sitting. You have to give yourself a moment to try to recall the information and process it.

A study done by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University found that students who are D, F students on average tend to overestimate their abilities or are overconfident in themselves. Interestingly though, A, B average students tend to underestimate themselves. This shows that the illusion of learning extends beyond the classroom. Humans tend to be over-confident in themselves because we are unaware of our mistakes.

So take a deep breath my fellow college students! Everyone is effected by the illusion of learning. Follow the tips above and you should conquer your subjects in no time. A couple important notes to take away from this post. One, stop rereading! We all do it and it does not help! Two, Self-test, test what yourself so you can figure out what you actually know! Three, though it may seem like it, energy drinks, coffee, and all-nighters does you no good. Please put down the caffeine, it is a drug, and take a nap! Happy studying and may the odds be ever in your favor!


(1) Fehlhaber, K. (2017, December 03). What know-it-alls don. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from’t-know-or-the-illusion-of-competence

(2) Goldstein, E. (2015). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, 4th Edition. Retrieved on December 04, 2017.

(3) Koriat A1, Bjork RA. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2005 Mar;31(2):187-94. “Illusions of competence in monitoring one’s knowledge during study.”

(4) Pandey, V. (2014, November 19). Illusion of Competence: How it effects our learning and what we can do about it. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from

(5) Study: Illusions of Competence, Or When You Don’t Know What You Think You Know. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.