Fake learning, Real Learning

Schools hardly ever actually teach us how to learn. They teach us lots of facts, interesting concepts, ways of doing things. And that’s cool.

But they assume that we’ll just pick up on how to actually learn along the way.

Kind of ironic, really, considering not that many people will use calculus or chemistry after school (it’s true, I won’t lie to you), and yet everyone will have to learn. I don’t just mean at university. I mean in life.

From learning how to use the latest iPhone to learning another language on your OE, it doesn’t ever stop.

How to learn is probably the most important thing you could learn. If you take nothing else away from school but this, you’re winning. Really.

And yet, we just hope that somewhere between the ages of 5 and 18, people will work it out. But often, they don’t.

Illusions of Learning

Have you ever thought you knew something really well, until you’re doing a test, and then somehow… it’s just not there? You know you’ve seen similar questions before, you know you’ve read about it. But you just can’t come up with the answer.

Why does this happen? Why is the answer just… out of reach?

A lot of the time, this comes down to illusions of learning. What’s an illusion of learning? It’s basically thinking you’ve learnt something when you really haven’t.

Recognition vs. Recall

One of the most common illusions of learning is being able to recognize something, and thinking that means you’ve learnt it.

Let’s say you’re learning geometry. You read the textbook and it seems to make sense. “Alternate angles on parallel lines are equal”. Okay, sure. You check out an example, and can see how they use that rule.

But when you’re pushed to actually come up with that by yourself – without the textbook open in front of you, you can’t.

In the exam, you’re staring at some weird set of lines, desperately trying to work out an angle. You know there are angle rules, you know you’ve seen them before. But you just can’t come up with them by yourself.

This is the difference between recognizing the answer and actually being able to recall it, or come up with it yourself.

So how do we get ourselves into this situation? A big part of it is through the study techniques we use, and this is where another illusion of learning kicks in.

“It’s hard, so it must not be working.”

Often, we think study techniques that really do work, don’t.

Why would that be the case?

Because a lot of these techniques feel horrible, and we assume that because something feels really hard, it’s not working. Learning feels like you’re wading through mud, and no-one likes that.

These are strategies like:

  • Testing yourself
  • Making yourself generate the information without any prompts.
  • “Interleaving” your study. This means switching between shorter blocks of a few different subjects, rather than doing massive blocks of one subject.

Testing yourself and generating information really make you realise what you don’t know. It can be uncomfortable as hell, and it’s oh-so-tempting to go back to re-writing or re-reading our notes, or doing questions with the textbook open next to us.

Except doing that is really just training ourselves to recognize the answer when it’s in front of us.

Interleaving, or swapping between shorter blocks of different subjects, creates ‘noise’ between sessions. You do an hour of maths, and then an hour of chemistry before hitting up maths again later on. But now you’ve forgotten your angle rules because your head is full of acids and bases.

Dammit! Maybe you should just stick with maths next time.

This is the trap we fall into. That noise is hard, but it’s a good thing. Between now and the exam, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of noise. We need to learn to live with those conditions now.

Avoiding the illusion of learning comes down to using study techniques that really test whether we can come up with information by ourselves, rather than just whether we can recognize it when we see it.

These study techniques are pretty damn uncomfortable, but wouldn’t you rather feel that way now than in the final exam?

And working this stuff out now is worth it.

It means you don’t just walk away from school with some vague understanding of chemistry and calc that will slowly fade away, but with the skills to learn whatever the hell you want to. And that’s pretty cool.


You can avoiding illusions of learning by using study techniques that really work. This can be uncomfortable – who likes finding out that they don’t know something? But it’s better to discover that now, rather than in the exam.