Cursing in the Classroom

Last week, while in class, I found myself becoming agitated with my students. They continued to ask the same questions about the same material…over and over again. I’m talking about asking the exact same question covering the same two or three terms/concepts. Brutal. Why were they not getting it?  We weren’t covering anything too complex or difficult. How many times do I have to tell you the definitions for absolute threshold and difference threshold? Will I give you examples of each? Of course I’ll do it…again.

I think most of us have been there. It’s easy to become frustrated with a student, a group of students, or even an entire class that just doesn’t understand something that appears to be quite elementary. Explaining once or even twice is normal..but the need to revisit multiple times across several days is a bit much, right?

Enter the curse of knowledge. This term refers to “a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.” (1) Need an example of this? Reread the first paragraph. The nature of teaching lends itself to displays of this bias. I mean, I understand what I said…it makes sense to me. Why can you not understand it?

What we sometimes fail to understand ourselves, as educators, is that we have a well-developed schema for the material. We have organized much of the information that accompanies and supports specific knowledge of a concept/idea/term. Not only do we comprehend the meticulous details of the subject, but we also see how it all fits together in a larger picture. Our students, much of the time, have very immature schemas and this can cause the puzzle pieces of knowledge to not fit together correctly.*

Think back to when you initially experience new information. It can take a few explanations and perhaps a few examples to fully understand. Or consider how many times you may have to teach a particular aspect of your curriculum before you actually know and understand it. I know, for me, I only now really feel that I firmly grasp all of the information I am teaching in my AP psychology class…and I’ve been teaching it for six years. I still vividly remember my first year, only being one day ahead of the class, spending many early morning hours going over the material in hopes of avoiding looking ignorant in front of my students. Scary times.

Now, back to my original scenario. While my students continue to ask me the same questions about the same material, I stay calm. I proceed through a few steps:

  • Try giving different examples.
  • Ask another student to explain their understanding to the confused student as I listen for correctness. Sometimes, peers can offer up an example that better relates or explains the term/concept.
  • Ask for the confused student to explain what they do understand about the term/concept. From there, I can pick up with an explanation. Usually, once I can pinpoint where their misunderstanding begins, I can proceed with more specific help.

Knowing that I am prone to experiencing the curse of knowledge actually helps me avoid it. I can remain calm instead of frustrated and continue to instruct my students; giving them the knowledge they need to mature their schemas and grow their understanding.

Have you ever experienced the curse of knowledge in your classroom?

How can knowledge of the curse of knowledge better your classroom?

*For more on schemas, learning, and memory, PLEASE check out Dr. Efrat Furst’s blog here. She is one of the hidden gems on twitter and in academia. Her blog is an absolute treasure trove of information.   


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10 thoughts on “Cursing in the Classroom

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  1. This is a very important piece. Teaching two subjects, I also feel the difference between the subject that is my profession (Pol sci) and the one I learned only after becoming a teacher (history). The interesting thing is that many times it is much easier for me to avoid the curse of knowledge in my second subject, as I find it simpler to understand what the students find hard to understand.

  2. Good writing ! It is fact that learning transfer does not happen in the classroom and it creates answering problems. The curse of knowledge is informative to describe the teaching theories of education. Thanks

  3. A great reminder. One year, I asked students to simply write down their confusion in a no El we were reading, then make a prediction about how they thought the author would eventually clear up that confusion. Their responses were so enlightening to me, and it had he effect of bringing me back in time to when I struggled with the same text.

    Have you heard of the “Metacognition Line Up” from This could be a good way to get students to work out their own confusion, but it involves the Ss getting out of their seats… Which can be a stretch for some teachers 😉

  4. I love your suggestion of asking a confused student to explain what they *do* understand about the topic. How many times did I ask a student to explain what they *didn’t* understand?!

    I want a do-over!

  5. A good case in point on sometimes being hindered by knowledge!
    What adds to the frustration, is that we often have to give the same (or at least, similar) lessons several times: that means even more repetition of the same stuff for us, while the information is new to each class. Still, I feel that if a student in class B asks the same question as a student in class A, I did something wrong: I did not learn from what students didn’t get about my explanation in class A. Instead, when I get questions in class A, I consider these (and their response to the ensuing explanation) as take-aways for my class B and adapt my explanation accordingly. This often helps – though it might cause the students in class B to ask yet different questions, which I will then have to process in my lesson to class C. In order to avoid a new frustration (namely, that class B gets a better explanation than class A and class C an even better one than class B), I try to make sure to follow up on that in the next lesson with class A.

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