Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

Have you ever thought that you clearly explained something to your students, but were met with blank stares and looks of confusion? If so, then you were probably experiencing the Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge happens when you know something so well that you no longer remember what it’s like to not know it and you assume that others have the same basic knowledge as you do. At this point it becomes difficult to effectively convey the information to a novice because you can’t put yourself in their place. It seems so clear to you, so why aren’t they getting it?

The problem is that when we understand something at a high level, we tend to think and speak about it in abstract and complex ways that are over the head of novices. To us it makes sense because we have a larger framework in which to understand it, but to those who are new to the information, it comes off as confusing and inaccessible.

To make matters worse, our elevated understanding prevents us from seeing where the sticking points or confusions may lie for the novice. As a result, we might talk about something without providing the proper background, use unfamiliar terminology, or skip ahead too quickly. We assume that what we are saying is understandable because we understand it, but this often results in either reinforcing the novice’s misunderstandings, or losing them entirely.

The Curse of Knowledge also means that we can have unrealistic expectations for how quickly someone will be able to learn something. Once we know it, it becomes easy for us and we forget how difficult it was in the beginning and how long it took us to develop our own understanding. For many instructors, it has taken years or decades to develop the expertise and level of understanding they have about the content they teach. It’s not realistic or fair to expect students to develop that type of understanding within a single term.

Do you think that you might be experiencing the Curse of Knowledge in your teaching?

If so, here are some tips to help you overcome this curse so that you can effectively communicate information in a way that is accessible and comprehensible to students who are new to it.

Be aware of the Curse of Knowledge

It might sound cliché, but the first step toward overcoming the Curse of Knowledge is to be aware of it. Realize and accept that your expert-like understanding of the course material prevents you from being able to put yourself in the place of your students and to truly know what it’s like for them to not understand. Staying alert to when students’ body language and facial expressions signal confusion, frustration, or disengagement can help you become aware of when you are experiencing the curse. It can also help to become a novice learner in something yourself so that you develop empathy for what it is like to be in your students’ place (e.g., try to learn a new language, study a new discipline, or play a new instrument).

Get to know your students

Getting to know your students will allow you to gain a better understanding of what they already know/don’t know/misunderstand, so that you can more effectively meet them where they are. The better you know your students, the better you will be able to communicate to them at their level and present information in a way that they can understand. Getting to know your students will also help you become more aware of the Curse of Knowledge (see above). This short article offers 12 strategies you can use to get to know your students, most of which were suggested by students themselves during a recent interview project.

Make it relatable

As humans, we learn by connecting new information to what we already know. Therefore, it is important to present new information in a context that students can relate to so that it takes on meaning and students are able to make it their own. As stories bring abstract information and concepts to life, a great way to make something relatable is through storytelling, which can take the form of case studies, scenarios, historical and current events, biographies, and your own personal experiences. You can also use real-world examples, metaphors, demonstrations, simulations, and students’ prior experiences (e.g., Remember when…? Have you ever…?). The more you get to know your students (see above), the easier it will be for you to identify relatable contexts that work well for your specific student population.

Provide relevant background information

Your expert understanding allows you to process information in complex and nuanced ways based upon the vast background knowledge that you have developed over time. However, students do not have the same basic background knowledge that you take for granted, so things that might seem obvious to you could be lost on them. Before covering something, think about what types of foundation information and concepts might be needed to understand it and ensure that you are providing students with this relevant background information. For example, if you are talking about genetic testing, make sure that you also introduce the relevant aspects of DNA. This might involve providing additional explanations, more detailed instructions, or sequencing topics so that you cover basic information earlier in the term to serve as a basis for understanding things later in the course.

Emphasize the main message

Novices struggle to differentiate between the important and the unimportant. As a result, students often focus on minor details and miss the larger and more significant principles. To help them key in on what is important, start off with the main message so that they have something that they can then hang the details on. By first providing students with the big picture, you will help them develop a framework of understanding that they can use to place and integrate further information. Try to boil down the main message to just a sentence or two by stripping it to its most basic element, and repeat it whenever you can to emphasize its importance (sometimes we need to hear things more than once for it to sink it). Displaying key messages in bold/colour/large text can also help to draw students’ attention to it.

Use accessible language

Using jargon is one of the fastest ways to lose students—that is, using technical terminology specific to a discipline that’s not generally used in common language. Unfortunately, biology contains a lot of jargon, which poses a barrier to students’ understanding. If you thumb through a biology textbook you will likely find examples of jargon on every single page, but this does not mean that you need to use it in your teaching! As much as possible, use simple and plain language and avoid technical terms, especially when first introducing students to new concepts. Start by speaking in a way that students will understand, and then once they have the concept down, the jargon will mean something to them.

Get a non-expert perspective

The best way to know if you are presenting information at too high of a level is to get feedback from someone who is not an expert. Before trying out something with your students, consider running it by a non-expert colleague, friend, or family member. I regularly use my partner as a sounding board because she is not an expert in my discipline and has no problem letting me know when I’m losing or boring her. You can also ask former students to share with you what parts of the course were over their heads or particularly difficult for them to understand. Getting insight from a non-expert about where they are getting lost can help you to pinpoint where and how you can modify your communication to be at an appropriate level.

When it comes to teaching, expertise can be a great thing, but it can also get in the way of being able to effectively convey information to novice students. Your expert understanding means that it’s easy to fall prey to the Curse of Knowledge, causing you to assume that students know more than they do, to use abstract and inaccessible language, to move too quickly or skip steps, and to hold unrealistic expectations for how fast students can learn something.

The good news is that as soon as you acknowledge the Curse of Knowledge, you are already on your way to overcoming it! The rest of the antidote involves intentionally getting to know your students, presenting information in ways that students can relate to, providing appropriate background information, explicitly and repeatedly drawing students’ attention to the main points, avoiding jargon until students are ready for it, and seeking out feedback from non-experts who will be honest and open with you. By overcoming the Curse of Knowledge you will be better equipped to help your students on their own journey toward expertise.

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