Learned helplessness and the curse of knowledge

When an educator leaves certain parts out of an explanation because they think that they are understood by their students, they are affected by what’s called the curse of knowledge. This is a curse that is easy to fall prey to, because once something is understood, and indeed the longer that knowledge is held for, it becomes increasingly more difficult to imagine that others are not capable of similar understanding.

It would not be a stretch to suggest that this curse occurs more in higher education than in other educational contexts. This is because the academics tasked with teaching students are often significantly more advanced in their understanding of the foundational concepts that a typical first-year undergraduate student is needing to learn, but also because unlike other educational contexts, the academics’ first passion may not be educating students and therefore focussing on the delivery and comprehension of knowledge, but advancing further their own personal understanding and research in their field.

But failure to pay close attention to the incremental development of knowledge can have significant detrimental effects on students. The video below is an excellent example of how a sense of learned helplessness can so easily and almost covertly develop in even the most well-intentioned of students as a result of an inattentive curriculum design.

Design tips

  1. Carefully construct a curriculum that incrementally builds knowledge towards understanding key concepts and skills.
  2. Seek feedback from colleagues as to whether the curriculum is achieving this incremental progression.
  3. Seek feedback from past students as to how they experienced the sequencing: did they have to spend a significant amount of energy trying to simply understand these concepts and fill in their own gaps where explanations were insufficient, or were the explanations sufficient so that more time could be spent applying their knowledge? Obviously, this data would need to come from a student who performed in the mid-range.
  4. Provide students with multiple opportunities to check their learning. This will tell you if they understand what you are teaching them before a summative assessment.
  5. Provide students with multiple opportunities to practise the application of the foundational concepts in tutorials, and grade them. This will also tell you if there is a strong understanding of the concepts.

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


  1. Very interesting topic, Paul. I don’t think I’ve ever come across the term before. However, while I was watching the video, I immediately felt compassionate with the left side of the room. So I guess that even without really knowing about the concept, I intuitively try to eliminate helplessness on my students’ part when designing activities or explaining things in class. Anyway, thanks for bringing it up and making me push it towards the more conscious part of my brain. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Hana. Yes, i agree – the compassion is instantaneous because they are genuinely trying, and literally in such short time they are demoralised. It is quite powerful isn’t it? Very glad you are intuitively addressing it with your classes.

      Liked by 1 person

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