Overcoming the Illusion of Competence: Effective Ways to Retain What You Learn

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about the illusion of competence and how to overcome it to set yourself up for success.

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Knowledge is power. But with so many different learning techniques, it's important to find the right one that works for you, so you can better retain information on a long-term basis.

Feeling competent in your knowledge of a particular subject stems from being secure in your ability to have learned everything you need to know about it. This leads to a feeling of power in situations in the classroom, at work, and in life. But do we really know what we think we know? This question is the basis behind the cognitive bias known as the illusion of competence.

What is the illusion of competence?

The illusion of competence occurs when people think they know more than they do. For example, a student might have taken a class in a subject previously (and done well) and therefore feels like they can spend less time studying for a class in a similar subject. This illusion of competence could lead to a test performance that's not as good as expected, as this student thought they already knew more than they did. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect, another term for the illusion of competence, gets its name from Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. This effect refers to when someone overestimates their knowledge or capabilities and may not have the skills to recognize their own limitations [1]. Those facing the Dunning-Kruger problem may feel confident giving opinions or working on a particular undertaking in an area where they have little or no experience. Even more challenging is that they do not recognize that they lack the necessary capabilities.


Causes of the illusion of competence

The illusion of competence stems from incorrect learning. When you learn new information, it is stored in two areas of the brain: short-term memory and long-term memory. Your short-term memory stores information you just read or learned, while your long-term memory works in aiding long-term retention and recall. Not all of the things stored in your short-term memory transfer to your long-term memory, and this is where it is essential to practice techniques to keep our knowledge fresh. 

Those with the illusion of competence are under the guise that once something is learned, it will stick with them, which is not the case if the information hasn’t been transferred to their long-term memory. Instead, it is stuck in short-term memory, which can easily be forgotten with time. Simply put, they overestimate their knowledge.

People who consistently overestimate their knowledge may have difficulty listening to any constructive criticism or negative feedback they receive, which can contribute to continued underperformance. Those lacking competence are likelier to overestimate their competence without realizing it. The good news is that the ineffective study methods that often lead to the illusion of competence can be easily remedied. 

Learn more about the illusion of competence from the experts at Deep Teaching Solutions:

5 learning methods to overcome the illusion of competence

Overcoming the illusion of competence often comes down to effective learning techniques. Here are five basic ways to retain your knowledge long-term to help you perform better during tests, at work, and in everyday life:

1. Recall what you've learned.

When you have read, heard, or watched something, step back and try to recall what you have learned. Form pictures in your mind of what has occurred, and try to remember the information. If you have forgotten things, go back to the material or ask questions to help your brain commit the information to long-term memory.

2. Reflect on what you’ve learned.

Think about how you can apply the knowledge you gained and practical ways to learn how to benefit from it in your life. Reflecting can help you apply what you learned in one area to other unrelated areas. Sitting quietly on what you learned in class, at work, or during the day is good practice.

3. Implement what you’ve learned.

Turning your knowledge into action by applying it to a situation, problem, experience, or event is important. Active learning isn’t about memorizing or reciting what you read in a book. You will benefit from actually practicing and turning your knowledge into something you can use in everyday life.

4. Share what you’ve learned.

When you share and discuss what you’ve learned, you’re helping your brain pay attention. You’re reinforcing what you’ve learned, and you’re less likely to forget the lessons. Sharing with others also allows for feedback from people skilled in your area of knowledge. Constructive criticism can help you continue to grow in your learning. Use this as a way to improve yourself without getting defensive. 

5. Practice self-assessment.

Testing helps you retain what you just learned. It also enables you to remember key points to use as a base. Studies have shown that when people are quizzed often, they learn more [2]. Another benefit of self-testing is that you can recognize what you find difficult to remember and focus more on that. Testing yourself deepens your understanding and long-term retention of the information and helps you assess what you've retained through studying.

Try taking a short break while studying to see where you stand. Close your book or computer and try to recall the facts. If there is something, you can’t remember, review it again, paying more attention to that particular information. Even saying the information out loud can help lock it into your memory.

Become a better learner

Interested in discovering more about the ways we learn? Consider Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects by Deep Teaching Solutions on Coursera. Learn best practices on how to memorize new information, manage procrastination, and make the most of your study time, all at your own pace.

Article sources


Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.77.6.1121." Accessed March 24, 2023.

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