Beating the Illusion of Competence in Learning And Learning Efficiently

Do you ever find yourself reading for hours for a test or to understand something, highlighting or underlining in the books, and repeating the content to yourself only to realize that you remember little to none of it on the day of your exam? You spend so much time trying to do well, but the results don’t reflect that. And now you’re demotivated and the expectations of people are further putting you down.

In the next few minutes, I’ll show you exactly how to bust those illusions of competence in learning and soar higher than ever. I’ll also tell you not just how you can ace your exams but also master your productivity, socialize, AND get enough sleep. It’s time to abolish the need for all-nighters!


If I had an axe and 10 hours to chop a tree, I’d spend the first few hours sharpening the axe to cut the tree faster. This post may be long but it has been written after extensive research and reflection of experiences. You won’t regret reading these 20+ amazing learning, time-management, and productivity strategies, and psychological hacks!

Table of Contents


To learn effectively – first UNLEARN.

High-school has almost always drawn our focus to end results, examinations, and getting into a good university. Undoubtedly, that is the ideal result but that approach can limit the efficiency of many students.

Consider this, you’re planning a journey far away by car. It’s important to know your destination and that you need to get there. But you want to be prepared for it too. You don’t want to rush to it, but make sure the journey is smooth. For that, you need to focus on the journey itself first – the travel, your baggage (not emotional!), necessary items, first-aid, etc. Rushing or focusing too much on the destination might end up in multiple stops along the way to purchase essential items you might have forgotten or even worse – you get lost and never reach the destination.

Most of the tools we are equipped with in our learning journey are not efficient. Many of the things we’re told, the mindsets we’ve developed, the goals we’re made to make, the manner in which we’re told to achieve them create numerous limitations for us. A lot of things that a majority might be seen doing end up as very ineffective – like – underlining, highlighting, rereading, etc. Those create illusions of competence in learning. So, it is important that we replace these inefficiencies.


Illusions of Competence in Learning

The illusion of competence in learning is a misconception that learners hold where they think that they understand and have learned a certain concept or material because they have spent time attempting to do so. The familiarity of having gone through it is mistaken for having learned it. For example, reading the circular flow of an economy five times will make you know that the circular flow exists but not enable you in being able to explain it or answer questions related to it. 

You might have kept your books open to create an illusion for your parents or siblings that you are studying while you might actually be scrolling through memes, but there are also times where you are genuinely studying but are unaware that those methods have created an illusion that you are yet to realize. While your parents work on busting the illusion you actively create, let’s bust the illusion you’ve subconsciously created.


Repeating content enables us to recognize it and be familiar with its existence but not be able to learn or explain it again. To think that repetition is equal to learning is the illusion of repetition. Sometimes we even end up getting lost in a robotic sense of repetition and it hits us later that we lost track of what we’re even repeating.


When we recognize or remember that we’ve gone over certain topics, we mistake it for having learned it and thinking that we can answer questions related to it. There is a false sense of confidence.

Since time is short, this often leads us to believe that we should focus on something else and we keep delaying revising familiar concepts. This illusion can prevent looking for extra help, resources, doubt clarification, and revision. Students may also avoid revision tests for the same reason only to have their reality checked by the exam.

Studying strategies that you might mistake for effective learning

  • Over-highlighting
  • Beautifying your notes too much
  • Rewriting long sentences and trying to take a transcript of lectures
  • Multitasking
  • Skimming through questions without trying to work out at least an outline of solutions
  • Listening to videos or lectures without much focus
  • Sleeping with your notes under your pillow
  • Being forced for tutoring additional to school

Think about it, what studying habits do you have? Are you getting the results you think you should get? Can you see any other unproductive patterns or catch any illusions?


Approaching “difficult” or new concepts often scares us and induces a sense of anxiety with a fear of failure in learning said concept. However, in many cases, this fear or perceived difficulty is exaggerated.

You’re most probably thinking of Math, or any other subject that makes you go “ugh”. In my last two high school years – I ran away from Math. However, after rocking the 40-60% range for most of two years, I pulled up to 90s in the final examinations. Looking back, I realize that it was mostly an illusion of difficulty and lack of effort on my part (remember, time spent does not equal success – you might be using the wrong strategies and creating an illusion of confidence!). 


I don’t want to be a doctor that prescribes the same medicine to all the patients so note that some of these strategies may or may not work for you. Experiment and find out which ones work best. Be sure to find out what kind of learner you are and use relevant resources to unleash your maximum potential. Even then, you can experiment from a plethora of resources that I’ve provided below!

Productive Learning Methods – Preventing the Illusion of Competence in Learning and More!

Psychology, Motivation, and Mindset in the Learning Process


When approaching subjects and concepts that make you feel anxious and uncomfortable to study or approaching something new that makes you want to procrastinate, work through that discomfort otherwise you enter an ever increasing spiral. A research shows that the fear and discomfort arises by the thought of doing that work but after starting it, the pain begins to disappear.


Visualization might also help beat the illusion of difficulty. By this, I don’t mean get lost in the fantasies of high results (but if that motivates you, do it!). Rather, imagine yourself in the process of learning, working and enjoying it. As bizarre as it may sound, it is actually a proven effective strategy.


Nurture is better than nature.” To think that your skills, knowledge, talents, and everything you’re good at is something you’re born with is a very limiting belief. The first step to learning is to acknowledge that you are born with stock settings and everything else is learned – either directly or indirectly.

This growth mindset – the belief that anything can be learned – will always keep you from giving up and striving towards improvement. You’ll also be able to appreciate your wins better. You’ll celebrate high results as a consequence of your effort and not “luck” or “the test was just made easy”. You’ll also learn to identify your challenges and cope with them effectively rather than attributing failures with “bad luck”, “the paper was made hard” or “this subject is just not for me”.


Learning new things might also seem difficult because of cognitive fluency. Cognitive fluency is when understanding something becomes easy and smooth because of positive feelings towards it or experience. Only doing tasks where cognitive fluency helps us limits our growth.

You are a ruler and your comfort zone is your empire. You have to keep expanding your empire. You do so by expanding your comfort zone by getting out of it. Then that becomes your new comfort zone and you keep stepping out again and again and your empire keeps expanding and you never stop.


Set a strong foundation in your student life. This will serve as a key that’ll guide motivation. Find out why education is important for YOU (don’t listen to classical high school conditioning. Find YOUR purpose), where you’re headed and other important questions.

You’ll develop self-regulated learning and motivation habits easily. It’s like planting seeds. It’s step one. After which you put in effort and learn the best strategies to grow it and in the end you reap the results and modify your next crop to get even better yields. But step one is always planting the seeds – strengthening the foundation.


If you’re a high or middle school student, it is likely that your parents and teachers are very concerned about your performance and regulate you in various ways such as confiscating your gadgets, grounding you, forcing you to attend additional tuition classes, preventing you from signing up for extra-curricular activities, threatening to bar you from attending board examinations and so on.

As I said before, one size does not fit all! But, regulation stems from distrust in your strategies. Talk to your parents and teachers about what Amaan taught you in this post, devise a plan that suits your style and be transparent with them. Then assess your results and modify accordingly. My education was very regulated by my parents too in middle school – I even had a timer on my laptop in early middle school preventing me from using it outside assigned hours! But as time passed and I shifted to more self-regulated learning and produced results, all the regulations faded away.


  1. Set rewards for yourself
  2. Re-frame punishments to rewards – change “I lose my phone if I don’t study” to “After I’m done studying, I can relax and scroll through endless memes!”
  3. Think about the satisfaction you will get after finishing the task at hand.
    1. Point of caution: if you have certain addictions (smoking, etc.), the satisfaction you will gain from doing other things will be lower as your harmful “modes of escape” are more chemically (brain and hormones and the fancy science stuff) rewarding. Be sure to actively fight off addictions as well.
  4. Think about a bigger picture and give more meaning to what you do (reaffirming your foundation).


PUNISHMENTS AND BEING HARSH WITH YOURSELF – While it may sometimes work in the short run, it is likely to do more harm than good in the long run.

SEEKING VALIDATION OR PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM SHAME – Same as the previous one, it is likely to do more harm than good in the long run. In fact, reflecting upon high school it makes me realize that this is what kept me going. I did not intend to pursue a career in the subjects I had – commerce – so I didn’t have long term goals for those subjects. But I am a person who tries to develop an “all-rounder” profile. My intense involvement in extracurricular activities led many to believe that it would affect my academics negatively. One of the reasons I tried to score higher (apart from good university entrance) was to prove those statements wrong and maintain my social standing and avoid the shame of hearing, “I told you so”. While my motivation sources in university are more interest-oriented (I love what I do!), I can recall my high school period being challenging because of this mountain of expectations from others and myself.

Important Tip! Motivation and learning should be regulated to protect your mental health. Don’t design your strategies in a way where you overwork, sleep less, take minimal breaks, compromise on food, drink and overall health. Be gentle with yourself for long-term results. I can’t even say that overworking makes your life machine-like, because even machines can overheat and ruin if they’re not maintained.


Specific Strategies and Tools that can Assist Your Learning


After you’ve gone over a concept, close your notes and recall and summarize what you’ve gone through (either in writing, verbally, or just in your mind). You can even try pretending like you have to explain it to (a) a child; and (b) someone your level to further grasp the concept. Recalling can also be done via self-testing.

Solving Questions & Self Testing

In learning, self-testing refers to the practice of quizzing yourself and testing your knowledge about certain concepts.

  • You can test yourself by attempting to solve questions that your instructor has given you or by finding questions online.
  • If you’re running low on time, you can outline the answers instead of doing them completely. Like in Math, You can write the steps and skip the arithmetic.
  • In other subjects, challenge the concepts by finding difficult questions, case studies, and applications.
  • Promote curiosity and inquisition. Put the concepts in different scenarios and answer the questions yourself or reach out to someone who knows how to answer them after you’ve tried it yourself adequately. This will also help you develop life-long learning skills beyond the concept you are trying to grasp.
  • You can even challenge your peers and make quizzes for each other.

Create Flashcards

You can create flashcards as you study. On the front of a card, you write your concept/question and on the back you have the answer. You can create a deck of cards and shuffle them and test yourself. Don’t look at the answer until you’ve made a serious attempt to answer it.

  • You could do this the old fashioned paper and craft method and upskill your art and crafts skill or,
  • Use apps and go digital – this will also help send you reports and analyze your performance efortlessly.

You can use this app for Android. Download it by clicking here.


Using the Focused and Diffused Mode Appropriately

The focused mode of thinking is when your brain processes information in deep detail and at a high technical and objective level. It is not a creative or dreamy state of mind.

The diffused mode of thinking is also referred to as the natural mode of thinking and is more subconscious than technical. It allows creativity, forming connections, curiosity, and other subconscious mental processes.

Thoughts that we collect in the focused mode are likely to stick for comparatively longer and deepen technical understanding of the matter. However, the diffused mode is also equally helpful. At times when we feel stuck, switching into the diffused mode (by doing something relaxing or meditating with a predetermined objective of observing learning recall and connections) can help break that block. Thoughts in the diffused mode can be forgotten very easily, so it is important that you write any “aha!” moments during this mode down immediately.

Fun fact! A lot of my blog post ideas come when I am in the diffused mode and not through active planning of “what’s next?” I write down prompts immediately as they come. I’ve been able to work better this way than sit down and actively think. But active thinking is what helps do the research. Clearly, both modes are important!

Understanding the Working and Long-Term Memory

Coursera’s course, Learning How to Learn explains that Working Memory is like a blackboard. We temporarily have some information but only a small amount of it. The long-term memory is compared to a storage warehouse where there is a very high storage capacity.

When we learn new things, they only remain in our working memory, and have to be actively recalled and revised to be saved in the long term memory – into the warehouse. But even then, since a warehouse is huge, if you don’t actively recall where in the warehouse this information is, you’ll end up losing it. The key to effective learning is persistently revising.

You can refer to items in your working memory as packets and their transfer to the warehouse as boxes. This brings us to the next learning strategy – chunking.

Creating Chunks, Metaphors, and Analogies To Learn Effectively

Chunking can be referred to as the process of converting related items in your working memory (small packets) into stored items in the long-term memory (boxes in a warehouse) or working memory items with already stored long-term memory items. This strategy calls for the grouping of concepts and information related to it, with other related concepts for easier remembering and understanding.

In the most basic sense, the definition of “photosynthesis” can be chunked as a step-by-step process. Each stage is a packet and the whole process is the chunk. However, there are other ways to chunk efficiently and understand concepts as well.

  1. Metaphors.
  2. Analogies (I’ve used so many analogies throughout this post to explain many of these ideas to you!).
  3. Mnemonics (click to find other memorization techniques as well).
  4. Visualizing.
  5. Connect the learning with real life experiences. If you don’t have any, look for other’s stories and connect it to them.

Spaced Repetition & Do not Cram!

“But I know so many students who work last minute and score well!” Nope, that’s simply not possible unless they somehow got information through osmosis into their brain as they slept with a book under their pillow.

Sure, they might not have spent many hours revising every day, but remember, time spent does not equal success. What you might be ignoring or what they might not be actively acknowledging could be the following:

  1. They had prior knowledge on the subject.
  2. Their learning sessions effectively utilized mental strategies.
  3. They paid attention during class and formed chunks immediately.
  4. They might have revised efficiently here and there but the time span was not too much to acknowledge
  5. They recently embedded a 2 TB microchip in their brain.

I’ve done work last minute as well, but it was almost never just a night before, and I made sure to use the best tools and resources I had (mindset, rest, food, sleep, strategies, note-taking, time management, discipline against distractions, etc.).

Remembering information and concepts accurately requires spaced repetition. “Spaced repetition is a method where the subject is asked to remember a certain fact with the time intervals increasing each time the fact is presented or said.” This practice combines recall and memory to use your mental warehouse efficiently.


Time Management and Productivity Hacks and Strategies

Learning Productivity and Time Efficiency

You’re trying to turn in an assignment or study for a quiz but time is less and you’re panicking and now your productivity is falling because of anxiety. Or, your constantly worrying about the grade or what your instructor will think before you’re even done with the assignment. What should you do?

  • Realign your focus. To be productive and get into the flow of work, focus on working in that moment. Do not set your immediate target as “completion” or “grade” but “make progress in this moment”. This is an easier task that won’t induce anxiety and make time fly as you become productive. You can use this focus when you set timers of studying or working.
  • The Pomodoro technique is a great way of regulating this flow of work with productive periods and breaks (25 minutes work – 5 minutes break – 25 minutes work […] long break ). There are plenty of apps you can use to help time you and track your progress.

You can use this app for Android. Download it by clicking here.

  • Since some people work well under pressure, artificial time shortages can be created to increase productivity. You can do this by taking your laptop to a cafe without the charger and set a target. By doing this, you have the sense of urgency to finish your to-do list before your battery runs out.


It is not reasonable to sit through classes or read material and remember everything important in one reading. It might help you ‘pass’ but not excel. There are many different ways in which you take notes of the lectures you attend and the content you read for easy referencing and looking back later on.

  1. Cornell Method

A paper is divided into three sections as follows. The note taking area is where your actual notes go, the cue column is where key words and terms that’ll help you recall will go and the summary column is an overview of what is in that page for quick reviewing.

Image result for cornell method
Source: University of Maine at Fort Kent
  1. Outline Method

The table of contents in this blog post has been written in the outline method. There are key headings, within each key heading there are sub-headings within which there are specific strategies. There is no need for any page divisions needed in this format but text is indented appropriately for clear organization.

  1. Charting

This method involves drawing tables and columns. Works best for comparisons, pros & cons, timelines, and even description templates (you can create a table for historical battles with the columns reading ‘when?’, ‘where?’, ‘who?’, ‘victor?’, ‘why?’, & ‘impact?’ to better understand the many different wars).

  1. Salad

If you saw my notes, you would notice different note taking formats. I keep switching depending on the subject and the type of content being delivered in that class and also on my mood (if I feel like doodling or not). Some concepts are best explained with mindmaps (organs of the U.N.), while some are better off with an outline (features/causes), the use of arrows (this led to this…), or doodles (e.g. simple drawings of a cannon, musket, and boat for “age of discovery”).

Environment and Sustainability!

As technology is advancing further, note-taking is also shifting from on-paper to digital. Of course, this is also something for you to find out what works best for you. Trying digital note-taking isn’t harmful! You could use your system’s default apps to stylus your notes away or download new ones. Or you could just type on your laptop like I do.

I’ll also be talking about a platform called ‘Notion‘ ahead for productivity, you can use that platform for note-taking as well as it provides templates of different styles.

Here’s a sample of my Cornell Note-taking on Notion

Point of caution! Try not to write full sentences and only take down KEY information (in the sample above I’ve used full sentences as the lecture pace was not too fast and I’m a fast typer). You don’t want your note taking to be slower than your instructor.

Special thanks to my peer Zoha Siddiqui (Junior 2 – Finance Major) for providing information on note-taking, the Cornell Method, Outlining, and Charting.


Time Management and Planning

  1. Google Calendar
My Google Calendar Set-Up – Includes Classes, Events, Deadlines & Misc. Tasks
  1. Notion

Notion is your artificial workspace. You can organize almost your entire life using this website/app. You can organize your subjects, courses, finances, journaling, note-taking, goals, to-do list, deadlines and pretty much anything else you can imagine! You can create your own templates from scratch (you can refer to Ali Abdaal on YouTube to learn more) or use Notion’s preset templates on different things depending on what you want to do. Setting up this workspace or having any other form of organization will help you self-regulate your learning.

Here’s a sample of the interface of a workspace created by my peer Manaswi Madichetty – 3rd year – Finance major, and modified by me.
The Cornell Notes method is also integrated into the Notion Course modules in this template!
Within each course module.

If you have an email address that ends with “.edu”, register with that and you will have the Personal Pro plan for free. But even with a normal email, the free plan will enable you to solo-use this workspace. Register for a Notion account by clicking here. You can access and create a copy of the above template by clicking here.

I can provide all the content I want but success will be seen after you tailor it as per your needs and implement it. I hope this post helped you, all the best, and do let me know how you’ve seen changes before and after this read.
If you found it helpful, don’t forget it share it with your peers and on your socials for your followers to benefit as well! Valuable growth is in sharing of knowledge.

Check Out Also: Test-Taking Strategies and Checklist!
Subscribe for updates below to stay vigilant!


Resources that were mentioned in the post:

  1. Types of Learners
  2. Vigilant Mind: Student Foundation
  3. App Recommendation: Flashcards for Self- Testing
  4. App Recommendation: Pomodoro Timer
  5. Memorization Techniques
  6. Notion (with Coupon!)


  1. Coursera: Learning How to Learn
  2. Coursera: Motivating Gen Z Learners
  5. Super Mario Effect – YouTube
  6. Previous Vigilant Mind posts “How to study”, “Preparing for Exams”, and “Developing a Strong Student Foundation” were refined and incorporated into this.


  1. So glad I read it before my final exams! Awesome tips and I especially liked the description of the notion app; it was something new that I got to know!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This blog was actually good it covered up a lot of problems but it should also include the fact that many students are demotivated to study because of their instructor’s favouritism among student. This problem frequently happens in CBSE schools (Or any curriculum in general) where teachers will give good results to their favourites even though they did horrible or just defend them from school punishments in any way possible.


    • I’m so glad you liked it! Hopefully the favouritism fades as time passes. Since you mention favouritism, you might want to read up on something called the “Affinity Bias” to understand that from a more psychological perspective. Thank you and all the best!


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