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Helping Students Overcome the Illusion of Comprehension

How often have you heard the following from a student, or perhaps your own child? "I studied so hard, and I still got a C!" This is referred to as the illusion of comprehension or, confusing familiarity with knowing. This illusion can be reinforced through multiple choice questions where the student has been rewarded because the answer looked familiar and was, in fact, correct. Listening to a skilled instructor solve a problem can also contribute to this illusion because the clarity of the presentation gives the listener the impression that the material is clear and easy to understand. The following strategies can help students overcome the illusion of comprehension:

  1. Paraphrasing (versus memorizing) - Encouraging students to put concepts into their own words aids in the process of understanding because it requires them to use their own terminology and make connections between what they know and what they are learning.
  2. Using Study Strategies - If it is difficult for students to ascertain the main topics or concepts, they will not be able to give those concepts the attention needed for learning. Have students use study strategies that help them focus their attention such as highlighting, mapping, or answering questions/worksheets while reading. It may also be necessary to show students how to use cues within the text so that they can determine what is important to highlight, etc.
  3. Focusing Attention - In terms of helping students focus their attention during a lecture, less is generally more. Too many ideas presented simultaneously dilute attention. A general rule of thumb is that in a fifty-minute period, it is reasonable to explore three main topics. Each of those main topics may have one or two subtopics, including examples, which support the main topics.
  4. When teaching a procedure, teach the individual steps and then show how they are related. Helping students see how the steps are related is important because "each step serves as a stimulus for the next step."


Druckman, D., and R. Bjork. Enhancing Long Term Retention and Transfer. San Francisco: Jossey, 1994. Print.

Svinicki, M. D. Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Boston: Anker, 2004. Print.

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