Illusions of Learning are Plaguing Students

By Brandon Porter

Studying and learning effectively is one of the most important things a college student can learn to be successful and earn those grades that everyone strives for. This, however, is a lot harder than it sounds, and unfortunately, many students go about it the wrong way. If college students were asked how they studied for a big exam, the majority of them would most likely say they reread their text and go over their notes. This is a common fallacy and is also often referred to as an “illusion of learning”.

Illusions of learning are something that students struggle with. There is often common hardship when bad test results enter the hands of students who were up for several hours the night before “studying”.  The effectiveness in which one studies depends on the way they do it. According to Inspiration Education Tutoring  “Being able to “’remember’” something once it is shown to you, is recognition, being able to”’remember’” something without any clues presented, is recall”.(1) This article goes on to explain how it is easy for students to recognize key words rather than recall something on its own.(1) This here is the reason why students have difficulty on tests after simply rereading notes and text. Recognition of key words isn’t the same as being able to recall and comprehend the topics at hand. This plays into the connection between rereading and the familiarity effect. This is because familiar things like letters and words are processed much quicker than things that are not recognizable.(2)  Therefore, when students reread their material, the familiarity they gain from it begins to feel like mastery.(3)

As much as students are at fault for just rereading their notes or text, there is also something to be said about how professors teach their classes and represent their curriculum. Often times the way professors teach can promote illusions of learning, and the studying habits that come with it. For example, professors use slides and text for content when there will be homework and quizzes down the road. Specific topics can be taught in a variety of ways and homework repeatedly nails home the topic. Knowing this,  it leads students to read and reread the text or slides. (4) Like before, this is not enough to be a successful student. Many times, students think they know the material and go into the test thinking they will get a great grade only to find out afterward that they got a C or worse. This can be quite frustrating but what comes next will show ways to avoid this problem from occurring.

Another problem facing college students is that the majority of them have never been taught how to learn or study correctly. This is why many think rereading their notes or text is enough and feel confident after doing so. There are more advantageous ways to help not only remember something but to recall it. One way to do this is to use self-assessment. After reading or studying a material, a student could stop and quiz themselves over what they read. They would do this by trying to recall key points and concepts and what they mean. Something a student should avoid is highlighting. Although highlighting is somewhat better than just rereading, it is still not a recommended strategy for quality recall. Studies have shown that highlighting hurts more than helps when doing difficult tasks that require inferencing.(5) It can also lead to a feeling that a student knows the material well when they highlight. Instead, when reading a text a student should write down important ideas and take notes. Also, it can be very beneficial to study with a partner or in groups. Teaching someone a topic that they are struggling with can not only help them but also help the person teaching grasp the idea even better than they did before. The final way to avoid illusions of learning is to try to acquire a deep understanding of the material being studied. One way to do
this is to try to go back and look at previous material learned. Then, try to connect it to the new material and find out how they relate and interact. After all, it is pretty difficult to understand new topics when not knowing how the basic things from previous material are building on each other. (5)

Illusions of learning in college are something that college students struggle with each and every day. The majority of students most likely do not even know that these illusions might be behind their struggles. This is something that could easily be changed. If students were taught or at least provided some kind of info on better study strategies then maybe it would help prevent them from continuing with bad habits. A simple effort by both students and professors could easily turn this problem around.

    1. Why Illusions of Learning May Be Robbing Your Children of Success in School. (2017, June 23). Retrieved from

2. Krueger, L. E. (1975). Familiarity effects in visual information processing. Psychological Bulletin, 82(6), 949-974. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.82.6.949

3. Weimer, M. (2016, May 23). Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy? Retrieved from

4. Weaver, J. (n.d.). Eliminating the Illusion of Learning from Engineering Courses. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from Eliminating the Illusion of Learning.pdf 

5. Itsquiz. (2016, October 12). How to Avoid Illusions of Learning – Itsquiz – Medium. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from


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