Illusions of Learning in College Students

By: Emily Young

One of the most common reasons I heard when I was living in the dorms while pursuing my first bachelor’s degree was “I never learned how to study”. For many college students, including myself, college was the first time any real amount of studying was really required to get the grade one desired. Many of my friends would stay up late rereading everything that was supposed to be on an exam, only to find that they still only received high Cs or low Bs, and sometimes worse. I myself often fell prey to the familiarity effect. When I would read through vocab words, I would often skip over ones I’d seen many times, assuming I had a full understanding of them (Goldstein 2011). These, amongst other problems, contribute to a huge problem in why even days of cramming for an exam may yield low results, The Illusion of Learning (Goldstein 2011).

One way people contribute to the illusion of learning is by study by simply rereading material (Goldstein 2011). I think everyone has made this mistake at least once, and I know I’m especially guilty of it in science classes. When one reads the same material over and over, they are simply increasing their fluency in the material. In other words, rereading the material makes it easier to read, but that doesn’t mean one is actually enhancing his or her memory for it (Goldstein 2011). For my aforementioned friends, each time they reread the material, they felt it was a little easier to get through. For them, this lead to the illusion that they were learning the material. In fact, they were just creating fluency, which is very short term. So, by the next morning, when the exam came, they had not enhanced their understanding of the actual concepts and memory at all. As I said earlier, I had this problem especially when it came to science courses. I would simply reread the book. So, if for example, the phrase “the mitochondria is the power house of the cell” might be something I read and reread when I was studying. While I remembered that phrase very well by my third reading, I did not really understand the function of mitochondria.  So, if the question was woreded differently on the exam, say something like “this area of the cell is responsible for keeping all of the energy flowing throughout the cell” I may not recognize it as mitochondria.

The familiarity effect is the other problem the illusions of learning mentioned in our course text. This is something I am very guilty of, especially when studying vocabulary words. I often will read a word and assume I know what it means, when in fact it is only familiar to me (Goldstein 2011). This tends to happen especially with words that are at the beginning of a unit, because they have come up so many times in the text since, I may often feel that I have read this term so many times, and I must have a great understanding of it by now, I may, in fact, have no real memory of what it means, and thus end up missing questions related to it on an exam because the familiarity effect tricked me into thinking I understood a term that I in fact did not.

Highlighting is also an issue. While 82% of students highlight, it is in fact an illusion,. Highlighting gives the impression that one is working very hard and studying vigorously, but in fact most students will actually find it interrupts their processing (Goldstein 2011).

Although each of these is something commonly encountered by students at some point in their careers. The best way to avoid them is simply recognizing them and recognizing yourself doing them. Avoid highlighting on your first reading of new material, never skip reviewing any vocab words, no matter how familiar you think you are, and always do more than just reading and rereading the material when preparing for an exam (Goldstein 2011). Between these three things, you may find yourself getting better grades before long!


Goldstein, E.B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Belmont. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.

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