The Illusions Of Learning

We try different techniques to learn and help encode information into our long-term memory. Have you ever wondered if these techniques actually work? Maybe, they only create an illusion! Basic memory research and research on specific study techniques have concluded that some techniques only appear to be useful.

Here are some illusions you probably thought counted as learning!

 Rereading Material 

One reason for the popularity of rereading, as a study technique, is that it can create the illusion that learning is occurring. This happens because reading and rereading material results in greater fluency- that is, repetition causes reading to become easier. Though increased fluency creates an illusion of learning, it doesn’t translate into better memory for the material.

 The Familiarity Effect

Another mechanism that creates illusion of learning is the familiarity effect. When a material you read becomes familiar, there is a tendency to interpret this familiarity as being indicative of knowing the material. Unfortunately, recognizing a study material does not mean you will remember it later as the information has not been encoded in your long-term memory.


A survey by Sarah Patterson in 1992 found that 82% of students highlight, and most of them do so while they are reading the material for the first time. The issue is – highlighting seems like an elaborate process ( taking the highlighter and marking the important points), but often becomes an automatic behaviour that involves moving the hand, and has little to do with thinking about the material.

Patterson compared students who highlighted the material and those who did not. The results showed no difference in performance when the groups were tested. Highlighting may be a good first step, at the same time, its important to go back and use techniques such as rehearsal or generating questions in order to store information in your memory.

So whats the right strategy for learning?

For effective learning , we need to use better strategies like elaborating the content, testing, gathering and organizing information. Formulating questions from the material and attempting to answer them helps hone retrieval of knowledge and encourages deeper processing.

A recent survey of research on many different study techniques concluded that practice testing and taking breaks are the two most effective study techniques.

Adding to the above approach, research shows that memory performance is enhanced if sleep follows learning. Therefore taking breaks in the form of sleep soon after studying can improve consolidation, which results in better memory.


Cognitive Psychology, 4th edition, Goldstein ( click to buy the book)







3 thoughts on “The Illusions Of Learning

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