Myth #2: Rereading and Highlighting Significantly Increases Learning (and more)

Topic B: Illusions of Competence

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that highlighting is so fun that people often highlight while they are reading. The rainbow visuals create a sensation that we are productive and offers proof that we are reading the material carefully. In fact if we reread the material, that also offers proof that we are spending dedicated time to studying and learning. Anybody who was watching us the entire time could not possibly accuse us of not using our best effort.

Those efforts may be in vain as research as shown that highlighting and rereading yields low levels of learning. What feels like you’re learning is actually an illusion of competence.

An illusion is of competence is when you believe a certain learning technique is teaching you effectively. It is often characterized by a false sense of security and often uses practices that are deemed “easy”, like highlighting  and rereading, though not always. An example of an elaborate illusion of competence is the belief that creating concept maps (diagrams that illustrate the complex relationship between materials) is more useful than retrieval practice, even though retrieving and recalling the concepts worked much better.

(Even though I desperately hope that by writing this out for everybody to read, I am not creating my own illusion of competence in the process.)

What are good ways to circumvent the illusions of competence?

As the study previously mentioned showed, retrieval or recall practice is a good way to test if you actually know something. It takes away the impetus to look at the solution if it is in front of you and requires that you come up with the knowledge yourself. For instance, if you are hoping to memorize a piano piece, literally put away the sheet music and practice as much as you remember. It is a lot more effective than playing the music over and over again with the sheet music in hopes that you will somehow build muscle and auditory memory. Playing the piece may even be easier over time, but there would be diminishing returns in your memory. But why is that?

Practice is good and no doubt it will make you better the more you do it. But if you practice something too much it may lead to overlearning complacency and the belief that just because something is easier, you are learning more. In addition to recall, it is good to use deliberate practice, which means forcing yourself to focus on the difficult material, and interleaving to practice many approaches and strategies to the same material. This prevents another illusion of competence, Einstellung, when knowing something well with a narrow-minded focus prevents a better idea from being found. Interleaving gives you different perspectives, allowing you greater mastery.

So why should you predominantly use the difficult methods of studying (recall, deliberate practice, interleaving)? Not only are you testing yourself against illusions of competence, but sometimes errors are good to make. Learning from your mistakes is another mindful way of accepting your shortcomings and working towards improvement.

So the next time you are studying, perhaps it is a good rule of thumb to put away the highlighters and bring out the flashcards.

Highlighters are like candy when you’re on a diet.

Image from :

Now recall this: what is the term for knowing something so well it can prevent a better idea from being formed? (No looking!)


Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Memories of errors foster faster learning,” August 14, 2014, Science Daily.

David J. Herzfeld, Pavan A. Vaswani, Mollie Marko, and Reza Shadmehr. A memory of errors in sensorimotor learning. Science Express, August 2014 DOI: 10.1126/science.1253138

“The lesson you never got taught in school: How to learn!” at

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 [PDF]

“Research finds practicing retrieval is best tool for learning” at

“Deliberate Practice” at

“Interleaved Practice: A Secret Enhanced Learning Technique” at


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