Illusions of Competence

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We learned how to learn forming new Chunks, but it is also important to understand how to avoid tricking ourselves into believing we reached competence in a subject when actually the foundations of our learning are still fragile.

It is common to study using some not-so-effective strategies (Dunlosky, 2013):

  • re-reading, in the hope this will improve retention of the subject matter
  • highlighting and/or underlining, often a large percentage of the text
  • note-taking, often transcribing as much as possible
  • cramming – concentrated long study sessions just before a test

Often these study techniques not only are not improving retention and recall of the studied material, but even worse, are creating the illusion that the material is mastered.

The most effective study strategies seem to be (Dunlosky, 2013) (Oakley, 2014) (Oakley & Sejnowski, n.d.):

  • retrieval practice – practicing recall of the studied material
  • distributed practice
  • interleaved practice

In other terms, recall and practice are very important to consolidate the knowledge in long-term memory. As we already noted in Memory and Chunking, spacing the study and practice sessions is also very effective, giving time to form new connections between memories.

In this regard, a powerful tool to effectively perform spaced recall and practice is using “flash cards”. Hand-written flash crads go a long way, but there are also some powerfull applications, like Anki, helping the user practice spaced repetition in an optimal way. Give them a try!


  1. Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning. American Educator. Retrieved from
  2. Oakley, B. (2014). A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). Penguin Publishing Group.
  3. Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Coursera. Coursera. Retrieved from