6 Illusion of Competence

“To be effective in assessing one’s own learning requires being aware that we are subject to both hindsight and foresight biases in judging whether we will be able to produce to-be-learned information at some later time” (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013). An illusion of competence occurs when one believes they have learned something, but they have not. “People are not adept at spotting the limits of their knowledge and expertise” (Dunning et al., 2003). For example, students may perform well on a test and believe they have mastered a topic. But the students would struggle if given the same test a month later. Their initial test scores can lead to an illusion of competence.

How can an illusion of competence arise? A one-time performance often does not reflect a stable long-term memory (e.g. durable learning). But believing it does leads to an illusion of competence. Consequently, many students end up choosing study strategies that optimize short-term performance rather than long-term learning. Misunderstanding how memory works and what is required to form stable long-term memories contributes to such illusions and poor selection of study strategies. In sum, durable learning requires long-term memory formation.

“a study by Koriat et al. (2004) demonstrated a surprising stability bias with respect to forgetting: Participants’ predictions of their later test performance were not affected by whether the participants were told they would be tested immediately, after a week, or even after a year (but see Rawson et al. 2002). The participants did, in fact, have a theory of forgetting at the belief level, and when the idea of forgetting was made salient, the participants became sensitive to retention interval—but without such prompting their judgments were insensitive to forgetting and highly inaccurate.”
– Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell (2013)

“One’s subjective experience can be interpreted in ways that are misguided and the source of illusions of comprehension” (Koriat & Bjork, 2006) as “people often have a faulty mental model of how they learn and remember, making them prone to both misassessing and mismanaging their own learning“ (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013). To achieve durable learning, students need to become proficient at regulating their own learning. Correcting misconceptions about how learning happens and modelling effective study habits can facilitate student achievement of durable learning.


Illusion of Competence
  • Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual review of psychology, 64, 417-444.
  • Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current directions in psychological science, 12(3), 83-87.
  • Castel, A. D., MCCabe, D. P., & Roediger, H. L. (2007). Illusions of competence and overestimation of associative memory for identical items: Evidence from judgments of learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(1), 107-111
  • Koriat, A., & Bjork, R. A. (2006). Illusions of competence during study can be remedied by manipulations that enhance learners’ sensitivity to retrieval conditions at test. Memory & Cognition, 34(5), 959-972.
  • Koriat, A., Bjork, R. A., Sheffer, L., & Bar, S. K. (2004). Predicting one’s own forgetting: the role of experience-based and theory-based processes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133(4), 643.
  • Rawson, K. A., Dunlosky, J., & McDonald, S. L. (2002). Influences of metamemory on performance predictions for text. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Section A, 55(2), 505-524.

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