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The Curse of Knowledge

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“Lectures starting in a place that is logical to the teacher, but not at all to the students.”

This is one way Sebastian Martin illustrates the “curse of knowledge” in his piece for The StartUp and it’s not an entirely unfamiliar scene for anyone who has been on the receiving end of one of these lectures.

Does higher education suffer from the curse of knowledge? Yes. In reality, it spans from K-12 into higher education, from undergraduate degree programs to terminal degrees. However, it is not a lack of knowledge that is the problem— far from it. The wealth of knowledge is there among faculty and teachers, as well as the desire and passion to impart that knowledge to their students so they can succeed.

Yet, sometimes students get stuck or feel lost in class, despite an instructor’s best attempts to explain the material. Luckily, since it is a curse of knowledge issue, we know just how to solve it.

What is the “Curse of Knowledge”?

The curse of knowledge is a “cognitive bias.” Simply put, it is the phenomenon where “the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing.” According to Lifehack, you forget what it’s like not to have this knowledge and, because you are so used to knowing what you know, you expect others to know it too and assume they understand it better than they do. When you have the curse of knowledge, User Testing notes that you have a “harder time explaining the basics to people who are new to the subject… because you can’t remember what questions you had when you were new to the subject.” Concisely stated by Customer.io, the curse of knowledge makes you “overestimate how much people understand you.”

Experimental evidence of the curse of knowledge was born in 1990, when Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, illustrated the phenomenon by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Tappers would “tap” out the rhythm to well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday,” while the “listener” was tasked with correctly guessing the name of the song. Tappers predicted a 50% success rate, but in 120 songs, only three songs were guessed correctly— a success rate of just 2.5%. While tappers assumed their message would be understood once in every two attempts, it only happened once every 40. This incongruity beautifully illustrates the curse of knowledge.

How does it impact students?

The “student-master dilemma” is inherent in the curse of knowledge. While a beginner receiving instruction from an expert sounds ideal, the reality is that a gap of understanding is likely to occur between what the master explains and what the student grasps.

It is prevalent that a student may experience this in one or more of their classes, especially in their first year studies. Encountering the curse of knowledge can leave them feeling lost, confused, discouraged, or frustrated. Those who already have a hard time asking for help or feel intimidated by attending professor office hours may experience helplessness or hopelessness that they never articulate.  Students dealing with anxiety or depression might struggle even more to access the motivation or clarity to find their own pathways around the curse of knowledge to understand the material.

Students who feel overwhelmed or defeated can appear disinterested to faculty. However, the problem is not that these students don’t care— they simply don’t know how to overcome the barrier created by the curse of knowledge. This causes them to inaccurately underestimate their skill level or potential ability to succeed in the subject.

What can we do?

The best way to address the curse of knowledge is through peer support. Peer tutors and academic coaches are able to support student success by bridging the gap between faculty and students.

First, peer tutors have more recent experience learning material as brand new concepts, so they remember exactly what the struggle was like. Authors of Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath, explain the curse of knowledge by saying, “once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like to not know it.” Peer tutors have an easier time imagining what it was like to not know the information. They can more easily put themselves in a student’s shoes because they are still a student themselves.

Subsequently, peer tutors are able to more effectively communicate with students. In fact, much of the advice to remedy the curse of knowledge by those who carry it is already natural to how students relate to their peers, making them excellent candidates to bridge this gap. For example, advice to improve communication amid the curse of knowledge includes suggestions like “choose to be more concise, explain more background (or ask if the background is known), don’t assume too much.” Fellow students are more naturally inclined to do this because they aim to speak concisely and they use language that their peers are familiar with.

Similarly, the ideas from Hubspot on how to “lift” the curse of knowledge are a fit for how students might naturally engage with each other in a peer tutoring session: (1) Know your audience’s base subject knowledge; (2) Tone down your vocabulary; (3) Tell a story; 4) Ditch the abstractions; (5) Provide examples; (6) Use visuals; and( 7) Get an outside point-of-view. According to the Harvard Business Review, stories are key in defeating the curse of knowledge because they demand the use of  “concrete language” and ”tangible demonstrations.”

Lastly, when it comes to actually teaching the material, peer tutors have an advantage in their ability to move beyond the curse of knowledge in the five ways Marie Rippel writes about in “How To Avoid the Curse of Knowledge When You Teach.” The ability to empathize, to not make assumptions, to go slowly, to break down tasks, and take inventory of skills that need to be taught all create the building blocks to academic success. Peer tutors can lead the way in these areas because they are still in-tune with the experience of learning the material for the first time.