Illusion of explanatory depth

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Definition

The illusion of explanatory depth is a phenomenon where learners who have some understanding of a topic overestimate the depth of their understanding.

It is closely related to the illusion of transparency (experienced by explainers) and is one of two common ways that the double illusion of transparency occurs (the other being misconceptions).

Distinction with misconceptions

The illusion of explanatory depth can coexist with misconceptions, that are specific wrong mental models that contradict the correct concepts. However, there is a distinction. Misconceptions are hard to self-correct, because they generate an alternate, seemingly-consistent, universe. Spending more time on self-reflection will usually not lead to a learner detecting and correcting a misconception.

In contrast, self-reflection is usually sufficient for a learner to detect poor explanatory depth, and decide to correct it.

Ways to avoid the illusion of explanatory depth

Start with a presumption of learning failure

The presumption of learning failure is the idea that learning should by default be assumed to not have occurred, and any claim to the contrary bears the burden of proof.

Recursive recall and the Feynman technique

Recursive recall is a highly active form of recall where a learner tries to articulate the entire topic from the top down, starting with a high level, then digging deeper. Recursive recall helps learners confront the areas where their understanding is lacking in depth.

The Feynman technique is an advanced variant of recursive recall where the learner tries not just to articulate the topic but to also explain it in a way targeted at learners with a minimal level of prior knowledge. It relies on the idea of learning by teaching.

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