The Fluency Illusion and a Better Way to Study

I’ve recently finished reading How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens by Benedict Carey and I was reminded of a challenge I’ve often had when meeting with students after they have done poorly on an exam. These students tell me that they spent many hours studying for the exam and that they know the material. They don’t know why they did poorly on the exam but they may blame anxiety or challenge the questions that I included on the exam.

Carey provides a good summary of the fluency illusion as it applies to exams and studying from his own experience:

The problem wasn’t that I hadn’t worked hard enough, or that I lacked the testing “gene.” No, my mistake was misjudging the depth of what I knew. I was duped by what psychologists call fluency, the belief that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they’ll remain that way tomorrow or the next day. The fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we’ve nailed some topic or assignment, we assume that further study won’t help. We forget that we forget. Any number of study “aids” can create fluency illusions, including (yes) highlighting, making a study guide, and even chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. Fluency misperceptions are automatic. They form subconsciously and make us poor judges of what we need to restudy, or practice again. “We know that if you study something twice, in spaced sessions, it’s harder to process the material the second time, and so people think it’s counterproductive,” as Kate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, told me. “But the opposite is true: You learn more, even though it feels harder. Fluency is playing a trick on judgment…. The fluency illusion is the primary culprit in below-average test performances. Not anxiety. Not stupidity. Not unfairness or bad luck.”

The primary strategy Carey recommends to overcome the fluency illusion based on his research in this area, is “retrieval practice” – i.e., using self-testing as a study strategy. He recommends the following:

Pretend you already are an expert and give a summary, a commentary—pretend and perform. That is the soul of self-examination: pretending you’re an expert, just to see what you’ve got. This goes well beyond taking a quick peek at the “summary questions” at the end of the history chapter before reading… When working on guitar, I learn a few bars of a piece, slowly, painstakingly—then try to play it from memory several times in a row. When reading through a difficult scientific paper, I put it down after a couple times through and try to explain to someone what it says. If there’s no one there to listen (or pretend to listen), I say it out loud to myself, trying as hard as I can to quote from the paper its main points… One very effective way to think of self-examination is to say, “Okay, I’ve studied this stuff; now it’s time to tell my brother, or spouse, or teenage daughter what it all means.” If necessary, I write it down from memory. As coherently, succinctly, and clearly as I can….   These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying—the high octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at an outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten—and fast.

I’ve experienced the fluency illusion in my own life and I know that the illusion is difficult to dispel. Unfortunately, Carey does not provide any suggestions for how to help students dispel the illusion but I hope making my students aware of the fluency illusion will be a first step to helping them develop better study strategies.

4 thoughts on “The Fluency Illusion and a Better Way to Study

  1. Jennifer jenkins

    This was a great article that helped me learn, relearn and retain information. Although I’ve received passing scores on exams, when I tried the retrieval practice distributed over a period of time, I was able to correctly answer more questions on my exam as well as recall 80% of the material several weeks later.

  2. Raqeebat Buhari

    Active recall is the solution.
    Instead of engaging in passive review (rereading, highlighting and note-taking), which will unavoidably lead to the fluency illusion, use active recall by actively trying to remember the material from memory without aids. This will retain information at a much faster rate.

  3. Learn English

    The Fluency Illusion suggests that rereading text can create a false sense of mastery. Instead, active recall, spaced repetition, and varied practice enhance learning. Embrace techniques like self-testing, summarizing, and teaching others to deepen understanding and retention effectively.

  4. McKay Byam, M.D.

    I think everyone’s replies above are spot on and I just wanted to add that I think this generation’s challenge has less to do with re-reading and more to do with re-watching lectures on 2x speeds. This technique has the same propensity to cause the Fluency Illusion because of how lucid most lectures are.

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