Academic Gains through Improved Learning Effectiveness (AGILE)

Avoiding Common Learning Traps

We created a graphic to help you remember the key concepts covered below in a downloadable PDF.

Most college students never learned HOW to learn. It is normal to be using approaches and habits that may have worked in the past to some extent, but it is also common to realize these are no longer effective. This means it’s time for a change.

Part of the change process is recognizing the learning traps or “pitfalls”. This is both in terms of perception and behavior. Below are five of the most common, and how to begin to move towards a more useful approach.

If you're looking for more information on one specific learning trap, click on the name below to jump to that portion of the page. We encourage you, however, to read all of the information below.

The Illusion of Knowing

Here are ways the illusion of knowing play out in the learning process. We encourage you to imagine the following:

I’m preparing for an exam, starting with a review of my notes. The notes look familiar, so I tell myself, “Yup, I know this stuff.” I take a look at my textbook, and see how I highlighted much of the information; since I’ve read it before, and it looks familiar, I again tell myself, “I know this stuff.” Perhaps I ask the professor or a peer from class to show or explain a concept, and when I see it my brain tells me, “I’ll be able to remember that.” The day of the exam arrives, and when I see the questions, I realize I did not actually KNOW the information.

To avoid the illusion of knowing, it’s important to use self-testing strategies, many of which are explained in this website. Examples include annotating the chapter or article while reading, summarizing key points from a lecture right after class, explaining concepts to others during group study meetings, and creating mind maps to show how concepts are connected and determine what can be recalled and what still needs more review.

Relying on One “Learning Style

Imagine the following:

I go into the first day of class, believing I’m a visual learner, and the professor announces the plan to rely on auditory lectures and small-group discussions. My response may be, “I’m not going to be able to succeed in this class!”

Here’s the reality: the most recent research on learning indicates that the most successful learners use SEVERAL approaches to learning, not relying on one strategy. The more approaches the learner takes, the greater the level of understanding and memory. In the class example above, a person who recognizes the value of visual learning can use active note-taking strategies to create visual representations of the concepts. The key is to not limit oneself, rather to use many tools and approaches to learning.

The Myth of Multitasking

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while simultaneously texting or writing an email? How about sitting in class and having a browser open on the laptop to read a website or watch a video while “listening” to what the professor is saying? Our brains actually do not have the ability to fully attend to more than one cognitive task.

Why is this important to being an effective and efficient learner? Because when we multitask while trying to learn, some of the information never “gets into” our brain since we are not paying full attention. When it comes time to prepare for a paper, a lab, or an exam, we often realize we have gaps due to this lack of attention, forcing us to go back to “learn” that information again. This is a tremendous waste of time, especially for a busy student. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to “single task”.

Cramming for Exams

Why doesn’t it work? The brain can only hang onto a small number of facts or thoughts at one given time. Cramming also does not create the opportunity for the brain to actively make connections between concepts, or to allow the down time known as a diffused learning state in order for the brain to “digest” the information and find the connections. Most learners become fatigued after a few hours of academic time on task, so the longer a person spends cramming, the less effective and efficient it becomes. Also, cramming typically involves memorization, and at the college level, the need is to UNDERSTAND and COMPREHEND in order to APPLY concepts, not just remember them.

Instead of cramming, spaced practice is the key. This means scheduling several “swipes” with the information throughout the week, not just before an exam. It also means using active learning strategies to make connections, test for memory and understanding, and to create the “scaffolding” or foundation of memory upon which new information from the class will be built as the course progresses.

Bargaining with Yourself

Bargaining is about self-talk, so paying attention to this internal dialogue is one of the best ways to avoid this learning pitfall. Messages such as, “There’s no way I’m going to do well in this course” or “I don’t have time to do that much reading” can be challenged. EVERY STUDENT can succeed by managing time effectively, planning out the academic time on task for the semester, engaging with the reading and other course materials, and self-testing. Setting a high goal paired with daily effort towards that goal leads to success!