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The Illusion Of Learning - What It Is And How To Overcome It


A student walks confidently into the examination hall. Burning the midnight oil for the past few days has been exhausting but fulfilling. He looks forward to attempting the exam questions which he has prepared so hard for. He flips through the exam paper. The questions do not look daunting but as he attempts to formulate the steps of the solutions in his head, a wave of helplessness washes over him. How can this be possible?


The scenario described above has to do with the “illusion of learning”. It is defined as a learner’s incorrect gauge of his or her own knowledge of the subject. Mainly, it stems from ineffective study methods rather than the lack of dedication or effort. Hence, before a student preparing for the PSLE starts his or her revision using Singapore free test papers P6 or free test papers for Primary 5, it is of paramount importance to understand and hence avoid this pitfall. First of all, we have to accept that all humans are susceptible to cognitive biases which are temporary distortions in the way we think. As a result, we may misjudge situations occasionally. The “illusion of learning” is a type of cognitive bias that explains why we sometimes forget things that we thought we have already mastered well.


There are several ways to prevent a student from falling into the trap of the “illusion of learning”. Firstly, a student should embrace making mistakes and subsequently learn from them. When a mistake is made, the brain registers the error and this leaves a deeper impact in one’s memory. The brain is able to retain the information better for retrieval next time. However, this is only effective when mistakes are made in situations in which students are not faced with any time constraints or weighed down by any immense pressure. For example, Primary 6 students may come across hard PSLE Math questions during their revision and find that they are unable to solve them within a short time. The strategy is to attempt the questions as best as they can and then assess how well they do. It is perfectly fine to make errors, as long as the student takes the time and effort to find out which areas he or she needs to work on. The “illusion of learning” can thus be avoided using this strategy.


For many students, revision entails reading through content which they have already gone through before. They may spend a big part of their revision time on these materials, committing the content to memory. However, this process should only form part of the whole revision. The next process – working through challenging questions from a variety of sources – is the key process essential for scoring stellar results in the exams. For example, a Primary 6 student might have all the Science concepts at his or her fingertips. This is simply inadequate for an exam preparation. A variety of challenging PSLE Science questions should be attempted as well to fully master the concepts and to understand which areas he or she needs to work harder on. This provides a complete assessment of how well the subject is grasped and directs the student to the areas that require more time and effort on.

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