Assumptions about Learning in the Classroom

One of the biggest determinants to the effective and effortful classroom, I believe, is assuming.  It gets us in all types of trouble. Perhaps the most prevalent uses/misuses (depending on your point of view) of assuming in the classroom is the assumption of learning.  Here are some common phrases that seem harmless, but are a big danger in the classroom:

“The students were happy/smiling/laughing while completing their work.”

“The students looked engaged.”

“Everyone participated.”

“I (the teacher) covered the information and now the kids should know it.”

So, why can these phrases be a danger to an effective classroom?  Well…in all instances, there’s been no assessment of covered material and the student(s) or teacher assumes learning has occurred.  Without assessment, no one should assume anything has been learned.

Here is a common example of assumed learning that I try to avoid in my classroom:

-Students complete a worksheet or organizer in groups using their notes, the textbook, and/or peers.

-At the end of a set amount of time, the teacher covers the answers.

-The students see that they answered all questions correctly and receive a 100%.

And here’s the really dangerous part:

-The students (and possibly the teacher) assume they know it all because they received a perfect grade.

In reality, the students have produced very little using their own knowledge.  Using all of the aids present, they probably relied on other’s knowledge. But again, in the end, they see a nice and shiny ‘100’ on their paper and assume they know/understand all of the material.  This overconfidence usually persists until an assessment takes place that permits no assistance from outside sources. Then, we may quickly find that learning has not occurred and students may be left in a sense of bewilderment because “they made a 100 on the daily work.”

So, how do we get around this common problem of assumed learning?  Common low-stakes assessment. I’ve written a step-by-step account of how I do this here. Here is a very abridged version:

  1. 1st attempt through answering questions, students use only their brain and highlight their answers in one color.
  2. 2nd attempt through answering questions, students use their notes and highlight their answers in another color.
  3. 3rd attempt through answering questions, students use the textbook and/or peers and highlight their answers in a 3rd color.

When we discuss the correct answers, students receive three grades; one grade for the ‘brain only’ answers, one grade for the ‘notes’ answers, and one grade for ‘textbook/peers’ answers.  I stress to the students that their true grade at this point is the ‘brain only’ answers they correctly answered. They should not assume that, just because they eventually answered all questions correctly using other aids, they know all the material.  Hopefully, through viewing their notes and discussion with their peers and teacher, they now know more of the material, but that should not be assumed. The only true way to know is with another assessment. Having frequent low-stakes assessments (retrieval practice) can also lead to a wonderful conversation with students about the positive effects of spaced practice vs. cramming.

The above example focuses mostly on the student’s assumption of learning. What about teachers?  We are human, have biases, and make assumptions, too. I believe the biggest assumption we make about learning that can negatively affect the classroom is the curse of knowledge.  Simply put, this cognitive bias occurs when an individual assumes others have the same background knowledge as they do and, therefore, incorrectly believes they should understand their communication.  How does this manifest itself in the classroom? How many times have you attempted to explain material to students and they sincerely just don’t understand it? This could be due to the curse of knowledge.  In your mind, the information is tucked away nice and neat in its organized and developed schema. You have probably covered this material several times and have many examples of when and where this relates to your life.  For students just hearing this information for the first time, they may be struggling to understand and organize the information, assimilate the information in with other background knowledge, and accommodate existing schemas.  This leaves both students and teacher frustrated.

How do we overcome the curse of knowledge?  Here are a few tips I’ve used over the years:


  • Start simple.  Especially when introducing material you know your students have no background knowledge of, begin with a simple definition.  Do no begin with a complicated activity with difficult instructions and multiple steps. Students may end up spending their limited working memory on the semantics of completing the activity and never attend to the actual information you are trying to get across to them.
  • Provide many examples.  The more, the better.  Here’s an article I wrote on the importance of providing concrete and abstract examples during lessons.  Both concrete and abstract examples are important for the assimilation and accommodation of new material into schemas.  Also, provided in the above link, there is a template for an activity I use to have students create their own examples.
  • Provide other sources.  If students continue to struggle understanding how you are explaining a concept, perhaps have them read or watch another source explaining the same material.  I teach AP Psychology and I am lucky enough to have a great series of videos created by Crash Course which explain a lot of the material I cover in class.  I frequently send students to this source to reiterate what we’ve discussed in class or whenever a student is a little unsure of their understanding of the material.  Obviously, there are many sources out there, just make sure you vet them before sending your students for clarification or further instruction.


Assumptions about learning should be avoided as much as possible in the classroom.  Ultimately, they distort student’s beliefs about their level of knowledge and incorrectly guide teacher’s understanding of student’s learning.  

One last thing:  Don’t make the assumption that you or your students don’t make assumptions.   

Are there other instances where assumption appears in the classroom?

How can you work to rely more on evidence and assessment in the classroom and less on the assumption of learning?


6 thoughts on “Assumptions about Learning in the Classroom

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  1. Hello, I am a AP Research Student and I was wondering who the author was of this blog, if anyone is able to respond to me that would be great!

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