The Illusion of Competence in Learning

With the conclusion of exams nearing, students will soon have a critical opportunity to reflect on how they can improve. For most students, often this reflection will solely focus on subject matter – specifically what questions were answered right versus incorrect.

Whilst this is important, reflecting on the ‘approach’ taken to learning, study and exam preparation is arguably of equal importance. After all, improving study quality presents an often overlooked – yet fantastic opportunity for student improvement.

Below, I address the cause and antidote to a normal ‘bias’ that can easily creep into study habits – ‘the illusion of competence’. Hopefully, teachers can share this advice with their students in the ensuing weeks.

The Illusion of Competence: Why we’re all susceptible.

Learning takes time and effort. Like with anything that requires effort, we need to fight our natural tendency to conserve energy and take short cuts. It’s not that we all have poor character and inherent laziness; we have simply evolved to conserve energy.

“The illusion of competence” occurs when we adopt passive ways of learning such as with reading and highlighting passages of text. We fool ourselves into thinking that we know or have learned something well, when in fact we haven`t. Just because we understand what we’re reading, doesn`t mean we have actually acquired knowledge that we can readily apply.

Preventing the Illusion of competence

Preventing the illusion of competence requires fully engaging one’s brain with study. It involves taking an active approach; wholly understanding and investing in the process of effective learning. The below learning techniques can help ensure that students fully ‘know their stuff’ and don`t fall victim to the illusion of competence.

Deliberate practice – Whilst it’s important to reinforce what is already known, it doesn`t pay dividend to aimlessly rehearse the same material within a given study session. Often students feel inspired to ‘hammer’ the same content because it feels good to have mastered something, and also because of the belief that it will improve recall. However, ‘feeling good’ doesn`t directly correlate with improved learning, and ‘hammering’ the same content in the one session is not the best way to improve memory (it’s best to space learning over multiple sessions for improved recall). In short, it’s far more effective to spend more time on concepts not understood, as opposed to simply repeating what is already known. As my drum teacher used to say, “you should spend the majority of your practice session trying to play what you can`t”!

Testing Oneself – This can be as simple as putting the book down after reading a chapter and seeing how much can be recalled. Similarly, it could mean working out a maths problem, as opposed to being content with understanding the ‘worked out’ examples given from the text. After all, knowledge isn`t learned until it can be regurgitated and applied. Making mistakes should be encouraged in this process; they provide valuable feedback for any gaps or misunderstandings, helping to improve knowledge.

Using both ‘focussed and diffused’ thinking – Learning is often a difficult exercise requiring repeated efforts over time. When used in tandem, ‘focussed’ and ‘diffused’ thinking can aid the learning process. ‘Focussed’ thinking occurs when the working memory is purposefully engaged with thinking, for example, resolving a problem. In contrast, the ‘diffused’ approach involves a much more passive way of thinking; using the power of the subconscious. This mode of thinking can be useful, for example, when stuck on a problem. Taking ‘time out’ like a 5 minute day dreaming break, going for a walk, or even ‘sleeping on it’ can be helpful for solving difficult problems. It’s remarkable how often the solution occurs in this mode of thinking! Thus, when used in tandem, both focussed and diffused thinking can be very helpful techniques to help grasp concepts.

Interleaving Study – Instead of practising the same type of maths problems within a given study session, imagine attempting a range of different maths problems within one study session. This is essentially what ‘interleaving’ study is; mixing up content within one study session. Although understandably a much more difficult way to study, research suggests that performance is improved when study is conducted in this manner. Significantly, ‘interleaving’ study is said to help the learner really understand when to use a certain approach, as opposed to just how. It is the contextual understanding pertaining to ‘why’ that is said to make a real difference to learning.

‘The Illusion of competence’ is a real threat to learning that students will likely encounter. Hopefully this article has provided practical ways to safe-guard against it, and in doing so, improve the quality of learning.

Did you know that helping students improve HOW they study often makes the biggest difference to learning and performance?

Contact us on 1800 462 988 or info@mindscholar.com.au to give your students the ultimate advantage heading into Semester two.

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