Group Instructions and the Curse of Knowledge

This is the 3rd post in a series on the Curse of Knowledge and its implications for teaching practice. The first is here, and the 2nd here.

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I love this image because it really highlights how easily a student can misread what we want them to do, despite them having the best of intentions.

Of all the activities when such an outcome can occur, group work undoubtedly takes the mantle. Group work, particularly online group work, separates the students from the teacher/tutor and therefore forces students to independently go about attaining the intended outcomes of the task. What actions the students take is entirely determined by the their understanding of what the outcomes of the task should be. How detailed and explicit those instructions and guides provided by the teacher are, is often affected by the curse of knowledge – where the teacher assumes students will know what to do in the group activity, because to the teacher, who has designed the activity, the recommended path of action has already been played out in their mind.

How to prevent the curse of knowledge in group work

Providing detailed instructions of what to do in the group activity is crucial if you want the intended outcomes to be gained. Don’t omit any steps, no matter how trivial they may seem.

It is not difficult to provide these instructions, but removes a lot of doubt in students’ minds, and places some responsibility on them to achieve the outcomes and be involved in the collective process.

I use the template of What, Who, How and When to detail the instructions. Of particular note is the need to inform students of the expectations for participation (i.e. everyone) and how they will demonstrate this. Is it going to be a shared doc, or shared verbal explanations?

Asking students if they understand the instructions before you send them off is also worth doing, just in case the curse of knowledge has crept into your instructions also.

Post-group necessity

In order to reinforce this expectation, it is important to follow through with what you expected when the groups return. Have the instructions up on the board, and begin to work through the ‘What’ and remind students of the ‘Who’ also as they go about sharing their work. Ask all the groups for responses etc. and check off the task’s outcomes. Ask about group dynamics and if the group found ways to interact efficiently (more on this in another post). What is very important here is to use the responses meaningfully. Do you need to explore an idea presented further, or pivot what you intended because students didn’t demonstrate sufficient understanding in the task?

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When you do this students get the message that what you sent them off to do is actually going to be checked and used to inform the next learning sequence – so it’s worth them getting involved. If you don’t, students will quickly get the message that they can hide in group work with little consequence, and worse, that the point of the next group activity is equally likely to be meaningless.


The curse of knowledge is very real, and costly at times, and it most definitely rears its ugly head in group tasks. To mitigate against it, make instructions for group activities more explicit. This will not only help students to be able to go about the independent work more efficiency and with success, but it will also help you to clarify your own thoughts on what you want the task to achieve.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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