Psychology in the Classroom #2 – Curse of Knowledge

Teaching psychology has taught me things about humans and learning and the classroom that I wouldn’t have experienced had it not been for the psychology curriculum. I think it important to pass some of these lessons along to teachers so as to improve their own instruction. Some of these lessons introduce particular theories of learning, some deal more with the human condition and how this may manifest itself in the classroom. All of these lessons are meant to be bite size; quick five minute reads that give you something to consider before your next class.

In the first post in this series I covered selective attention, which is incredibly important for the learning of information. Today, the topic is the curse of knowledge…really cool name for a psychological concept, I know.

The curse of knowledge is “a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, who is communicating with other individuals, assumes they have the background knowledge to understand”. (1) Quite simple, right? You assume others have the same knowledge you do when discussing or explaining different topics. I think, at one time or another in our life, we’ve all been on both sides of this coin. I know I’ve read excerpts from books, journal articles, had conversations with other teachers, et cetera where I understood some of what the person is writing/talking about, but some of the information is beyond my comprehension. Because of this, some of the meaning can be lost or it requires additional reading or asking for clarification to acquire the needed knowledge. Conversely, I also know that sometimes I assume others I interact with understand what I believe to be common knowledge, when they may not.

How does this apply in the classroom?

The curse of knowledge occurs more in the classroom than one may think, and I think the teachers are the main culprit. For instance, in math classes, concepts typically build upon one another. The information gained today will probably be used tomorrow with the addition of a new concept; requiring a working understanding of the first concept to be able to successfully implement the new concept. However, we are human and we forget…a lot.* Unfortunately, though, as teachers we assume that what we’ve covered the previous day(s) should be understood and remembered by students (hence, the curse of knowledge), but this often isn’t the case. This may then impede the students’ ability to understand and properly retain any further information on the topic/concept.** This wouldn’t be too much of a hindrance in class if students were confident enough to ask for assistance when they don’t understand material. However, in my experience, they often feel embarrassed by the holes in their learning and would rather remain silent and ignorant to raising their hand and admitting their lack of knowledge to the entire class.

So, to a certain extent, teachers need to be sensitive to the curse of knowledge and understand that just because a concept was covered previously in class, students haven’t retained all of that information. And if we (teachers) just jump right into new content with a review to access prior knowledge, instruction can become inefficient and ineffective.

How will you combat the curse of knowledge in your classroom?

*I’ve written in more detail about forgetting and why it actually isn’t such a bad thing here and here.

**Here are two evidence-based strategies (retrieval and spaced practice) that help with mitigating forgetting when implemented in the classroom.


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