Illusion of Competence : How it affects our learning and what we can do about it

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Have you ever watched any professional doing her job and thought that it is really simple? Like a gymnast demonstrating those complex manoeuvres and it looks so simple that anybody can do it. Most of all have experience such moments in life when we see a demonstration by an expert and got the feeling that it is very easy. This gives birth to the belief the we actually KNOW how to do the task with we have seen happening in front of our eyes. This very belief is called illusion of competence.

Since past few weeks I started learning about 2 things in parallel , coding in Laravel (a php framework) and Creating data visualisation using statistical data and outputs (thanks to MOOC available on www.coursera.com ). I followed the course, read the tutorial, watched the instruction videos and got that superb …AHAA .. feeling that I learnt something new. Luckily, last week I needed to work on a web-application that was developed in Laravel and when I looked at the codes, I had no clue about what the code was doing…All the recently acquired competence was wiped away.

In fact, that competence was never there, it was just an illusion. To understand it better, lets understand how our brain works. As per the latest knowledge in the field, our brain has two distinct areas related to learning new stuff and keeping the learnt material. There is small fast brain (which holds the short-term memory) and another large slow brain (which hold the long-term memory). When we learn something new by reading, seeing, watching, doing or discussing the material is retained in our slow brain where ‘patterns’ are formed to make the learning concrete. These patterns are eventually transferred to the slow brain where they are stored in form of Neural Network Connections. Not all which is in the fast brain goes to the slow brain and this where the concept of ‘illusion of competence’ comes into play. When the material is in the fast brain (short-term) memory, we get the feeling that we have learnt something. Since feelings are more durable that thought or the learning material stored in the short-term memory, after some time, the learning material is gone from there but feeling remains and we tend to believe that the learning has taken place.

Why illusion of competence is beneficial?

This may seem counterintuitive that ‘illusion of competence’ can be beneficial but we must not forget that human mind is very clever and selective, it never keeps things which are not useful for the purpose of ‘sustenance’. Illusion of competence gives following benefit:

It creates inspiration and motivation to take next steps to learn more: Since it falsely projects even difficult things as ‘easy’, it helps us to be inspired and motivated to learn more. Later on the result of actual learning feeds into the learning process and creates the motivation.

What can we do to overcome illusion of competence and solidify learning?

Here are some practical tips , which worked for me, to overcome the illusion of competence and speed up the process of sending maximum learning to the slow-brain (long term memory):

  1. Learn things in smaller chunks for a longer period of time: Instead of going through 40 hours of learning material in 1 week, keep it 2 hours per week for 20 weeks. This will help your fast brain, making stronger connections and passing them to permanent storage.
  2. Visualise after reading: If your learning material is written text, after reading each paragraph, pause for few seconds to ‘replay’ in your mid what you have read. This helps you improving the attention and consequential retention.
  3. Discuss with others: If possible,depending upon the nature of the subject, discuss what you are learning and what you have read/seen with your colleague, friend, spouse or child (and yes, I mean Child here).
  4. Do something about it: To finally, make it part of your total repository of competence, do a small project which involves application of what you learnt.
  5. Keep in touch on regular basis: Our mind is very selective, it keeps on deleting those things it thinks as ‘unimportant’ even without telling us. To stop it from doing this automatically, make it a point to revisit the learning material at regular intervals.

In essence the key to learning is ‘ABHYAS – Conscious repetition involving more than one senses’. Which helps us going through the illusion of competence to the ‘real competence’.

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