The Curse of Knowledge

A very, very long time ago as a fresh-faced newcomer to the University, I attended a meeting with a venerable senior academic. During a pleasant and wide-ranging conversation, we discussed students’ transition into HE. The academic made an observation. He said (something like):

“I’ve only just realised that each year, my knowledge in my subject gets a little bit better and I get to love it a little bit more, but my first years start from essentially the same place. That means the gap between what I understand and what they understand, gets a little bit bigger every single year.”

I’ve always thought that this was a profound observation and I try to use it in staff development, but I hadn’t realised that it’s tied a known phenomenon: “the curse of knowledge”. The curse of knowledge is the cognitive bias where you assume that the person you are dealing with has the same understanding as you, or as de Bruyckere (2018, pg 38) quotes “…when you know something, it’s extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it.” 

Just a B movie poster "the Curse of the Mummy's Tomb", decorative

I wanted to write about this because in the post-covid engagement crisis, I’ve been asking myself questions about what institutions can do to meet the problems. One issue I keep coming back to is ‘how do we get the best lecturers in front of first years to make sure that they set the best possible tone, mood and expectations?’ 

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable proposition. But what does ‘best’ mean in this context? I’m sure we can agree the basics of teaching (turning up, being human enough, sufficient subject knowledge, competent at communicating and using the required AV technology, etc.). 

Much beyond that, things get a little more complex: how do you pitch the level at which you teach? do you teach assuming that everyone has done the pre-reading, or that no-one has? How do you engage students in discussion, by talking to the reliable answerers or choosing (picking on?) those who don’t say very much? 

So what’s the connection to the curse of knowledge? 

I’m certain that there are many academics at the top of their game who inspire their peers but are hopeless with first years because they haven’t understood that their starting assumptions are so far apart. Of course there are some, who are outstanding at teaching first years, but it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s automatic. Just because we think the superstar prof is great, we shouldn’t assume that they’re the ‘best’ for first years.

In 2014, I worked with the President of the Nottingham Trent Students’ Union (NTSU) to analyse the nominations from the NTSU Outstanding Teaching Awards. We found four themes. Some of the students really valued tutor knowledge “One thing that goes in [the nominee’s] favour is that it would appear he knows everything.” But only 11% of responses were about subject expertise. Students valued enthusiastic teaching, genuine care for students and feedback and guidance far more (Foster & Southwell-Sander, 2014). 

Pie chart showing what students felt were the features that made for outstanding lecturers in the 2012 NTSU Outstanding Teaching Awards. 

42% of responses - Enthusiastic, engaging and challenging teaching
31% of responses - cares about students
16%  - good guidance and feedback
11% - good subject knowledge

There are some issues here. It’s another factor to add to the arcane art of timetabling, we shouldn’t just dump undergraduate teaching onto the shoulders of new lecturers or PhD students because they are closer to the students; all students deserve to be taught by experienced lecturers. I would argue, however, that it’s the responsibility of all academics to remind themselves that their understanding will be a long way away from that of new students and tailor their teaching accordingly.

So what can highly experienced lecturers do to keep themselves in the near vicinity of students?

  • Obviously, periodically remind yourself that you’re blessed to have had the opportunity to discover so much
  • Ask lots of framing questions, not just during induction, but at the start and close of classes, to remind yourself what students are/ are not understanding
  • I think students quite like insights into their lecturers, perhaps a little bit of sharing for example – what was number 1 when you or the students were born? If you have no idea who is at number 1 right now, that’s probably a useful reminder (& remember it’s your job to say that it’s rubbish and not as good as Bob Marley, Nirvana, Steps etc.).


de Bruyckere, P. (2018). The ingredients for great teaching. UK: Sage.

Foster, E., & Southwell-Sander, J. (2014). The NTSU outstanding teaching awards – student perspectives on engagement. In C. Bryson (Ed.), Student engagement in challenging times (2014). UK: Routledge.

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