Why Illusions of Learning May Be Robbing Your Children of Success in School

May 30, 2017NCEA, Study Tips

“But, Mum and Dad, I did study hard and I thought I knew my stuff. I’m not sure why I did so badly on my test?”

It’s a conversation we have all likely been privy to at some point in life.

Unfortunately our brains are not as trustworthy as we believe them to be. All of us (including the author of this post) are constantly subject to cognitive biases, which is a temporary distortion in the way you think, which can cause all of us to misjudge situations from time to time.


There’s a special kind of cognitive bias that explains why do we so easily forget things that we thought we had previously learned. When describing this type of cognitive bias, I like to coin the phrase illusion of learning. An illusion of learning is when we think that we understand something but we actually don’t: we can only recognise it. Illusions of learning cause us to overestimate how much we actually know about a topic.

Illusions of Learning can Obstruct the Learning Process

The main way an illusion of learning can happen is when students mistake recognition for recall.

Being able to “remember” something once it is shown to you, is recognition, being able to”remember” something without any clues presented, is recall.

This is an idea commonly discussed in cognitive psychology and one that can be easily illustrated in real life. Take the following example:

A classroom was broken into two evenly intelligent groups. The first group was asked who the President of China was but then for the second group, a list of potential presidents was given, and they were asked which one of person was the President of China. Would there be a difference in the percentage of correct responses between the two groups?

The answer: yes, most definitely.

Scientists carried out this exact study, and found that 36% of participants could correctly answer the question without any prompts. This number increased to 60% of participants correctly answering the question with prompts when a list of potential presidents were given to students.

This is because our brain confuses being able to recognise something to being able to fully recall it. The first question was designed to test “recall” because there was no “prompt” or trigger, whereas the second question was geared towards “recognition” because the participant simply had to recognise roughly the right answer.

The confusion between recall and recognition has profound implications for the way your children learns.

When your children sit at a desk and reread a section of a textbook again and again, they feel like they are gaining a full retention and understanding of the material.

But they’re not.

They are merely training their “recognition” of the key words and ideas, rather than the full recall and understanding of those ideas.

Then, when exam time comes and questions examining recall are asked, the information is promptly forgotten and the best a student can muster is a vague recollection of key words.

For example, if they are learning about why ions form from atoms, then they might read the textbook and think “well that’s logical” and might therefore think they understand it. They might even be able to recognise a few keywords, such as “protons”, “charge” etc. However, in the exam a different context to the textbook may be given. In this case students are often unable to remember any of the explanation from their textbook.

Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar.

I’ve seen it happen with so many students. They can throw together some keywords in a sentence but not actually have any authentic understanding of what they are actually saying. Often they’ll even just completely blank out.

Unfortunately, this is not conducive to high grades.

So, then, why do so many young people study by rereading their notes again and again?

Because they get sucked into an illusion of learning that gives a temporary sense of confidence and therefore convinces them that their studying is working. Then, instead of attributing the resulting failure to poor study technique, students often think the failure is due to being “dumb” or “stupid”.

This simple idea explains a lot about learning and why children get trapped in a cycle of lost confidence and failure.

It’s not about the fact that learning is “boring”, or that they aren’t intelligent – I know plenty of people of average intelligence who have done well in their education, including myself – it’s due to the way they are studying. Students are using methods, such as rereading, that promote illusions of learning that build a false sense of confidence that real learning is taking place.

Illusions of Learning Happen all Throughout the Learning Process

Unfortunately Illusions of Learning can happen throughout the entire learning process and happens much more often than we realise.

The ways we can fall into illusions of learning are numerous but, include the following:

  • Listening to lectures
  • Watching YouTube videos again and again
  • Reading your textbook again and again
  • Highlighting (this was proven to be ineffective through a 2013 study undertaken by the American Psychological Association)
  • Doing the same question, or type of question, again and again.

Unfortunately, avoiding illusions of learning is difficult.

If illusions of learning are so disadvantageous to the learning process, then why do we keep using methods that lead to illusions of learning?

Authentic Learning is Supposed to Be Hard

One reason is that students don’t know better; they simply do not know any strategies to study that help to avoid illusions of learning.

The other possible reason though, is that authentic learning is actually supposed to be difficult.

To understand this, imagine that using your brain is like building muscle – the more pain, the more gain. Authentic learning is supposed to be difficult and it may take repeated, deliberate practice before complete mastery of a concept is achieved.

Many of the studies based around effective learning techniques show that the participants using these techniques often feel like the techniques don’t work and they feel less confident about the learning process. Much like someone lifting weights for the first time feels useless after doing a few sets of dumbbell curls. However, when the participants underwent testing, these study techniques always produced better results.

Unfortunately many children have been conditioned by the school system to have poor, “fixed”, mindsets towards their learning, which then makes them more fearful of failure. In turn, this makes them feel much more comfortable with using ineffective learning techniques which create illusions of learning.

Bringing it back to the exercise analogy, it is much like someone who does push ups on their knees. It may make you feel stronger because you can do multiple push ups, but in the long run, there is not really much benefit because it doesn’t actually make you stronger.

It’s exactly the same with study strategies like rereading.

What Can you do to Counter Illusions of Learning in your Children?

There are many ways to avoid illusions of learning, but in general we need strategies that promote deep processing of information.

Your brain is intricate, with many different levels of processing that can take place. Strategies such as rereading notes again and again, only cause shallow processing by the brain, which means the brain either sends it into hard to access storage, or filters out, meaning that the memory is lost. Thus, we need strategies that enhance memory by helping your brain to deeply process information.

A simple technique you can apply almost immediately is “the test effect”, which is simply, trying to test your children on what they’ve learned (or getting them to test themselves) without any aid.

For example, if they were reading a chapter of a textbook, they could use the testing effect in a number of ways. They could read a section, then cover it up and then write or say a summary of what they’ve just read. At the end of the chapter, they could make a summary or draw a mind map of what they’ve learned in that chapter (without looking at the book), and then reread the chapter again to check if they have everything. They could place key phrases, definitions and concepts onto flashcards, or an online flashcard tool such as Brainscape (https://www.brainscape.com/), then get you to test them. Note that the testing aspect is the most important part of the exercise, not making the flashcards! This helps them to deeply process information and retain that in their memory.

Over time, you’ll really see the difference!

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