I failed a college history course – 20th Century US History, to be exact. I was a good student in that I attended all classes, dutifully took notes, and read all the material.
But I failed the tests. Every. Damn. One. Why?
I was never “good at history”
English and math were my best subjects. They made sense. They came easy. I read the material, solved the homework problems, and bah-dah-bing… like magic, I passed the tests – all with minimal effort. But not history. And the thing is, I never knew why. I just accepted the “fact” that I was “not good at history.”
The fluency illusion and failure
Here’s what I know now. Turns out my “good student” brain was fooled by the fluency illusion. You know the feeling you get when you’re rereading something and it feels familiar? You recognize the words, phrases, and ideas. You have a strong sense that you’ve been here before and you know this material well. In fact, it feels as if someone could ask you any question they wanted to about what you’re reading, and you could answer it effortlessly. Except that when it actually happens – on a test, or even during a conversation – you find that you can’t. You get stuck. It feels a bit like there are pieces of unconnected memories floating about in your head, but you can’t quite assemble them, grab them, and pull them down. That’s the fluency illusion (aka the illusion of knowing*).
Me: I just finished reading this great book….
Them: Cool. Tell me about it.
For that history course, I read and reread stories about prohibition, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Civil Rights movement, the moon landing, the energy crises, and the wars that scarred much of the century. I took notes and reread my notes.
But as I sat for the midterm exam trying (unsuccessfully) to describe what I thought I knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I froze. My brain felt like a giant whiteboard of notes that got messily erased overnight with just hints of pen strokes remaining here and there barely suggestive of the words that once populated it. The information I thought was securely stored in my brain just hours ago was now gone. How can that be?
The fluency illusion had just crept up and bit me on the butt.
Biting back at the fluency illusion
The fluency illusion can happen to anyone. It can happen whether you’re rereading your favorite fiction or non-fiction book, taking a course, or preparing for an interview or presentation. It can even happen to people who have good memories.
I’m rereading my notes and it’s feeling good. I know this stuff. In fact, as I’m reading, I’m even able to predict what comes next. That must mean I know it well. There’s no question in my mind that I’ll remember the information when it’s time to call it down from my brain. I’m prepared.
Next time you feel this feeling, simply test yourself. Close your book or notes, and ask yourself some questions about the material. Ask yourself about what you read. Ask yourself what’s in your notes. Ask yourself that interview question you’re preparing for. Ask yourself to run through the presentation.
Try a brain dump or quick jot – write down everything you can remember. Or try the Feynman Technique. These strategies help to expose the gaps in your memory and point you in the right direction for additional study. No matter how you do it, it’s going to feel like hard work.
But hard work pays off in the end. I wonder sometimes what might have happened if I had known all of this long ago, and could have dumped my “not good at history” label.
*See for example The Illusion of Knowing in Metacognitive Monitoring: Effects of the Type of Information and of Personal, Cognitive, Metacognitive, and Individual Psychological Characteristics – Avhustiuk, Pasichnyk & Kalamazh, 2018).