When You Think You Know Something and You’re Shocked to Find that You Don’t

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, you will learn about illusions of competence and how they affect our judgment of our abilities. You will also learn how to avoid illusions of competence and learning effectively.

Pause and Think: “I thought I understood it when it was taught”

Imagine you’ve just received your marked test sheet which was distributed to all your classmates as well. You look down on your sheet and find it covered with red pen marks. You think to yourself: “I just don’t see why I could have done so poorly. I understood it in class.” Why do we often suffer from illusions of competence and how can we prevent it?

The worse we are at something, the better we think we are

Many of us might not have heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect. However, we’ve all been in situations where we thought we knew something or understood how to do something. But we were shocked to find out that we didn’t actually know it as well as we thought we did. Sometimes, it just takes an examination to show us our lurking defects.


We’ve also seen other people with almost no knowledge or skill in a certain area claim that they know something. But when it comes down to proving their ability, they fumble woefully.

The Dunning-Kruger effect or what we might call illusions of competence is the extreme bias that some individuals with little talent or skill in an area suffer from when they rate their ability at a much higher level than it actually is. 

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger tested the effect in a series of experiments at Cornell University. They discovered that for a given skill, incompetent people will tend to overestimate their own level of skill and usually recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training or tests for that skill. 


Psychologists have shown that humans are poor judges of their own abilities in many different areas especially those areas we are really bad at. In other words, those that are very bad at something are usually worse at judging their ability to do it.

How to Deal with Illusions of Competence

One of the most common approaches for trying to learn material from a book or from notes is simply to read it over and over again. Studies have shown that this approach is much less productive than another technique which involves “recall”. After you’ve read the material for a while, look away and see what you can remember from the material you’ve just read.

Students that study a text and try to remember the key ideas learn far more and at a much deeper level than they do using approaches such as just rereading the text a number of times. In fact, it doesn’t matter much whether you take a formal examination or just test yourself informally, your learning improves and you form better chunks when you practice recall and retrieval testing.


A helpful way to deal with illusions of competence is to cover the notes you’re reading and try to remember what you’ve read so far.

Active recall is a principle of efficient learning, which claims the need to actively stimulate memory during the learning process. It contrasts with passive learning, in which the learning material is processed passively such as by reading or watching.

For example, reading a text about Nnamdi Azikiwe with no further action, is passive learning. On the other hand, answering the question “Who was the first president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria?” is active recall and is very efficient in consolidating memory for long-term storage.

Avoid illusions of competence by testing yourself 

Using recall and mental retrieval of the key ideas, rather than passive rereading will make your study time much more effective. It is very important that you are the one doing the problem solving or performing the action and making your mistakes if you want to master what you’re learning.

If you just look at a worked-out problem or watch someone else perform the action, even if you understand what’s going on, you might not be able to do it yourself when it’s your turn because you’ve done almost nothing to chunk and unite the concepts or steps into your own neural circuitry.


Photo Credit: iGovernment

Active recall and taking retrieval tests help because by remembering information and making our mistakes along the line, we are organizing the information and creating cues and connections that our brains can later recognize easily.

Also, the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains. According to Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College in Massachusetts, United States, “The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning. You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information’.”

Lesson Summary

Merely glancing at a solution and thinking you know it is one of the most common illusions of competence in learning. Many of us like to keep rereading our notes or a textbook. And we do this because when we have the answers right in front of us, it provides the illusion that the material is also in our brains.

Also, because it is much easier to keep looking at the book instead of trying to recall and perhaps write down what we can remember from what we’ve read, we persist in our illusions, studying in a way that just isn’t effective.


So, remember that just wanting to learn something and spending a lot of time reading about it or watching others do it, doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually learn it. A very helpful way to make sure you’re learning and not deceiving yourself is to test yourself on whatever you’re learning. Even though, it might not be fun, it will force you to try to remember what you’ve learned and by so doing, commit it better to long-term memory.

Happy Learning!

Lesson Discussion

What do you think about the ideas shared in this lesson about illusions of competence? Have you had experiences which made you realize you didn’t really know how to do something you thought you could? Share your thoughts here!

Confused about anything that was mentioned in the lesson? Ask a question!


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