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Have you ever wondered whenever you are studying if you are actually learning? Have you asked yourself if the materials you studied are ingrained well in your memory?  Will it be there long enough for long term or just in time for your exam to pass the subject and forget afterwards? More often than not, our perceptions of monitoring our knowledge whenever we study are susceptible to biases. In this article we are going to list down the strategies that gives us an illusion of competence to check and see whether we are really studying right.

  1. Merely glancing at a solution and thinking you know it yourself.

You thought that once you opened the book, and read through it, your brain is starting to absorb the contents. It’s easier to stare at the book. However, if you try to test yourself after reading, were you able to recall what you have just read? Merely staring or glancing at it and telling yourself “yeah, I know this” doesn’t mean you really know it and doesn’t mean that your brain is absorbing it.

  1. Highlighting and underlining a lot of words (and even paragraphs).

We tend to have a habit of highlighting too many words with the use of different colors of highlighters transforming our academic books into coloring books. At the end of your “highlighting session”, do you remember what you have just highlighted or just read? Can you recall what the lesson is trying to tell you?

  1. Practicing the easy stuff

In a certain subject, you will always find a part that seems easy for you. When you study, usually you focus on these “easy parts” to master thoroughly the subject rather than studying those you find difficult with. When you feel like you already know the topic just because you know the easy parts of it, you gain an illusion that you have mastered the subject when in fact, not yet.  

After getting caught up with these illusions of competence, what should we be actually doing to learn?

  1. Recall, Test yourself, or have a mini quiz. After reading material, we can close the book,  look away from it and try to recall what we have remembered from the readings. Another method is to answer different exercises. Do the solution on your own and check your answers right after. Study again on how you came about on the solution.
  2. Minimize highlighting. Avoid relying too much on highlighting. It will just give you an illusion that the material is syncing in your mind when it isn’t.  If you can’t avoid highlighting, just pick a few words or phrases (not sentences or paragraphs).
  3. Mistakes are good. Commit mistakes and cultivate from it. Keep on practicing. Learn from these mistakes so you won’t repeat the same mistakes on the exam or actual practice.
  4. Deliberately practice to gain mastery of the material. Work on deliberately practicing on the things you find more difficult rather than focusing on those easy stuff.

After reading this article, never again look at the material the same way you look at it before pretending that you are actually learning when you’re not. Don’t be fooled by these illusions of competence. Studying is different from learning. Work harder to learn and gain mastery.

Happy studying!


Koriat, A., & Bjork, R. A. (2005). Illusions of competence in monitoring one’s knowledge during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 31, 187-194.

Koriat, A., & Bjork, R. A. (2006). Illusions of competence during study can be remedied by manipulations that enhance learners’ sensitivity to retrieval conditions at test. Memory & Cognition, 34 (5), 959-972

MOOC Course: Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski of University of California, San Diego

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