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Even though students come to us having learned constantly since birth, they often hold significant misconceptions about formal learning. These misconceptions can be the result of myths shared with them by family and fed by advice from friends. Some are myths that result from misreading advice or from confusion stemming from feedback they have received. In some cases, the misconceptions are even embedded in school experiences and subtle messaging from adults.

Regardless of the source, misconceptions about how learning happens can create learning barriers. They can lead students to embrace thinking patterns and strategies that hinder their learning while avoiding experiences and circumstances that could lead to their success.

Our challenge is to uncover and help students to dispel assumptions and perceptions that can get in the way of and undermine learning. Here are seven of the most common misconceptions students have about learning—and why they need to be corrected.

Misconception #1: Struggle is a sign of inability.

This misconception does a serious disservice to learners and learning. Too often, learners who take more time to learn are labeled as “slow” and are assumed not to be skilled learners. In fact, however, taking more time to “wrestle” with a concept or skill can result in deeper understanding and longer retention of what is learned. Slowing down can be an advantage when learning really counts. Consider the quote from Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I am so smart, I just stay with problems longer.”

Misconception #2: Confusion is bad.

Students often panic when they find new content to be confusing. They worry that they are not capable of learning what they confront. They even may blame the teacher. Yet, if students never become confused, either they already knew what they were expected to learn, or what they were given was not very challenging. Confusion is one of the starting places for significant, challenging learning. Confusion should not be avoided. Rather, it should be embraced as an indication that an opportunity to learn lies ahead.

Misconception #3: Fast learning is good learning.

Many educators and parents inadvertently reinforce this misconception by labeling seemingly fast learners as being smart and skilled. Yet, fast learning often is surface learning. It may be that good short-term memory is on display, only to be followed by near-term forgetting. Also, what appears to be fast learning is often simply a review of what is already known or what is closely related to existing background knowledge and past learning. In fact, when it comes to new, challenging learning, students often overestimate the speed with which they learn. Many students have discovered too late that waiting until just before an exam to learn the content on which they will be tested takes longer than they estimated.

Misconception #4: Each student has one learning mode that works best for them.

This misconception assumes that each individual student has a singular, specific learning style that, if utilized, improves their learning. Yet, multiple studies have debunked this misconception. In fact, students are more likely to learn and retain content that is accessed through multiple, varied modes. The more ways in which students are able engage with new information or practice a new skill, the more likely they are to understand and be able to apply what they have learned.

Misconception #5: Listening to a lecture is more effective than active learning.

Students often think that when they are told something in an organized manner and in a formal setting, they learn more than when they openly discuss, reflect upon, and organize new content. Interestingly, a new study from Harvard University found that, despite student perceptions, the opposite is true; students who were actively involved in the learning process scored better on follow-up exams than their more passive learning counterparts. Active learning asks more from students, but they also learn more as a result.

Misconception #6: Knowledge is the accumulation of an array of isolated facts.

Students often confuse memorization of definitions, terms, and other bits of information with understanding. To be sure, the ability to recall and recite information can set the stage for developing knowledge and gaining insight, but true knowledge requires going beyond superficial information to connected understanding, application of concepts, and informed reasoning. When students communicate using correct terminology to describe something of significance and apply definitions as they construct arguments, they are demonstrating knowledge.

Misconception #7: Learning is doing only what the teacher says, only in the way the teacher directs.

This misconception assumes that learning is understanding the personality, preferences, and perspectives of the teacher and then giving them what they want. With this mentality, learning is simply “playing the game.” Unfortunately, this misconception risks missing the purpose of what is learned, remaining overly dependent on the direction of others, and failing to build self-management and self-direction skills. While educator instruction, guidance, and coaching are important, so is discovery, discerning, and deciding activities that are not adult driven. Note that this is not intended to conflict with the expectation that students demonstrate respect toward their teacher; instead, this point addresses the tendency for some students to produce work exclusively to “please” their teacher rather than take ownership of their own learning growth.

Few of these misconceptions may be surprising. In fact, many of us may have harbored some of these assumptions and interpretations when we were students. Yet, helping students to dispel their misconceptions can open the door for them to let go of what may be holding them back, and it may very well lead to success that extends far beyond their time with us.


Reuell, P. (2019, September 4). Study shows students in “active learning” classrooms learn more than they think. The Harvard Gazette.

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