Illusion of transparency

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In educational or explanatory settings, the illusion of transparency refers to a situation where the explainer believes that what he or she is saying is clear to students, whereas the learners are not following. The "not following" could be of two types:

  • The learner accurately assesses that he or she is not understanding what the instructor is saying
  • The learner inaccurately believes that he or she understands the learner, but the mental model that the student is building differs substantively from the one the explainer wants to convey (this could be in the form of explicit misconceptions or just incomplete understanding, i.e., the illusion of explanatory depth). This is the double illusion of transparency.

Relation with motivated cognition

Explainers often suffer from the motivated illusion of transparency: they choose instructional approaches that are least likely to shatter the illusion of transparency, and part of their motivation for choosing such methods is that shattering the illusion of transparency can be painful. For instance, if it's explicitly visible that learners do not understand the first half of lecture, then it's harder to nonchalantly move to the second half of lecture.


The solution to the illusion of transparency is continuous assessment of the mental model that the student is developing. the assessment should be such that student misconceptions are caught (i.e., the questions should be diagnostic of the misconceptions) and both the instructor and student receive quick feedback. Strategies vary based on how frequent the assessment is. Class participation methods such as cold calling, polling, and in-class desk work are methods to break the illusion of transparency.