Comprehending and Communicating Knowledge

The Gap between Minds

As a teacher, it is important to acknowledge what is known as the gap between minds. Broadly speaking, this entails being aware of the gap between what you know and what your students know, and then taking the appropriate steps to bridge that gap. This section looks at the factors that create or exacerbate this gap between minds, and how to address the identified issues to lessen the gap. There are four main factors associated with the gap between minds, namely: (1) mental state inference; (2) the curse of knowledge; (3) hindsight bias; and (4) egocentrism.

  1. Mental state inference. You know that you have a mind, and you know what you are thinking and feeling at any given time. But how do you know what other people are thinking and feeling? Since you don’t have access to the contents of other people’s minds, you have to do your best to guess what they are thinking based on information you can observe. Psychologists call this challenging task mental state inference, and it is a cornerstone of basic human interaction (Epley & Waytz, 2010). What kind of information can you use to infer the mental states of others? Luckily, humans are quite skilled at figuring out what someone is thinking based on their physical behavior, what they say, and your own ability to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel in their situation (Epley & Waytz, 2010). In your role as a teacher, acknowledging your assumptions about what determines individual students’ behaviors (and performance) may help shape how you teach to better support their learning and comprehension. This can be done by using a variety of instructional tools (such as active and collaborative learning techniques), as well as finding out (by explicitly asking students) how students learn best.
  2. The curse of knowledge. Just as the challenge of mental state inference is based on individual assumptions about the minds of others, so too is the “curse of knowledge”. More specifically, the curse of knowledge refers to the common research finding that increased knowledge about a topic can impair your ability to effectively predict how much knowledge others have. This phenomenon has several important consequences, the most important of which, from an educational standpoint, is difficulty with imparting your knowledge to others (Nickerson, 1999). As a teacher, your thorough understanding of the topic can prevent you from thinking about the concept from the perspective of your students, who are usually novices by comparison. You may therefore struggle to explain the concept to them. In other words, because you know a concept so well, you have difficulty imagining what it’s like not to know it. As a result, you may not present your explanation at the level of detail that would be most helpful for your students (Nickerson, 1999).

    To aid student comprehension of unfamiliar concepts, it is important, as a teacher, to be aware of the curse of knowledge, and to actively attempt to view the learning experience from the perspective of your students (novices). By doing so, you may be better equipped to support their learning of the material, as you will be more aware of the gaps in their knowledge and the fundamental concepts they need to know to adequately scaffold their comprehension of a concept. This scaffolding should be explicit in the design of individual lessons, as well as in the identified learning outcomes students are expected to have achieved at the end of the learning experience. This often involves being explicit with students about the values, priorities, and methods which people within your field or discipline may take for granted.
  3. Hindsight bias. Have you ever considered the outcome of an event and thought “I knew it would happen” or “I knew it all along”? This feeling is known as the hindsight bias. It is a psychological phenomenon where individuals view events in the past as being more obvious than the same events in the future, or before the outcome was known. The nature of this phenomenon may lead individuals to oversimplify events (view their cause and effect as being more predictable than they were), make incorrect decisions, or develop (and foster) a one-sided or biased view of events and information (Fischhoff, 1975). In their article on hindsight bias, Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs (2012) identify three levels of hindsight bias. These levels build upon each other, moving from simple memory processes to the more complex concepts of inference and belief. The three levels are memory distortion, inevitability, and foreseeability.
    Hindsight Bias
    Figure 1: The three levels of hindsight bias. (Adapted from: Roese & Vohs, 2012)

    Roese and Vohs (2012) then go on to outline the factors that influence hindsight bias. Among these is the tendency for individuals to recall only the information that confirms existing or verified knowledge. This knowledge is then used to create a narrative that reflects said information. Additionally, individuals also tend to seek evidence that confirms their view of the world and themselves as ordered and predictable. At times, this may require rewriting past experiences (Roese & Vohs, 2012). Hindsight bias has implications for student learning and comprehension, because it can prevent students from critically analyzing information to foster a more nuanced understanding of why one outcome is correct and the others are not. As a teacher, you can counteract hindsight bias by encouraging students to be critical of conclusions they draw based on the information they are given, as well as the information itself (for example, the cause and effect of an event). You can also let them try to answer questions in class on their own before they are told the correct response, so that they do not falsely assume that the answer was obvious all along.
  4. Egocentrism. Egocentrism refers to an individual’s inability to take the perspective of others into account. As is evident in the previous discussions around the curse of knowledge and hindsight bias, being unable or unwilling to analyze and incorporate perspectives outside your own can prevent you from thoroughly comprehending information. Although your role as a teacher is to impart your knowledge to others, it is important to consider the most effective ways to do so. Instead of exposing your students to masses of information that they need to consume, consider their prior knowledge and how best to support their comprehension of this information. This may take the form of encouraging your students to actively engage with the information they are given, and use it to construct their own knowledge and arrive at their own conclusions, as is done through the constructivist teaching approach.

    This awareness and critical evaluation is also valuable for teachers. Rather than only consider how you would like to teach a certain concept, think about the best way for a student (with limited prior knowledge) to interact with and comprehend said concept. This should then inform how you approach teaching for the purposes of comprehension. However, to do so, you need to actively identify and challenge any biases or misconceptions you may have. The same can be said for how you encourage your students to approach every learning experience.Interlinked with this notion of egocentrism is that of perspective-taking (as mentioned above). As the inverse of egocentrism, perspective-taking refers to the act of consciously acknowledging and “taking” the perspective of another. Through their research on egocentrism and perspective taking, Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, and Gilovich (2004) found that both adults and children tend to initially adopt egocentric, contextually-incorrect views of an event (where an alternative perspective is available). While neither adults nor children tend to perfectly adjust from their own perspectives to accommodate others, what children find especially difficult is quickly correcting this error in favor of taking the alternative perspective, and viewing the event from the position of another person (Epley et al., 2004). This correction is a conscious effort, which becomes less cognitively-demanding as individuals mature and are continually exposed to perspectives other than their own.

    Over time, the ability to correct, or at least acknowledge, egocentric interpretations and behaviors becomes a quicker process. However, it is still a process that individuals need to actively partake in. In the context of the learning environment, teachers can act as facilitators of this development by encouraging collaboration, and (where possible) providing students with various views or research to ensure exposure to and interrogation of multiple viewpoints. In doing so, the explicit aim of such activities should be to highlight the value (academic and personal) to be gained from perspective-taking. This notion of incentivizing perspective-taking is a key takeaway that Epley et al. (2004) have discovered through their research. They found that individuals are more willing to correct egocentric interpretations when there is an incentive associated with doing so.

Levels of Abstraction

Levels of abstraction refer to the level of detail at which content is delivered or discussed. As such, it is a concept that is tied to communication. As with the levels of hindsight bias discussed earlier, the levels of abstraction build upon one another. The higher the level, the more abstract the concept under discussion (and therefore the discussion taking place) (Hinds, Patterson & Pfeffer, 2001). There are three identified levels of abstraction, namely:

  1. Objects: The first level of abstraction deals with tangible objects. The truth (validity) and existence of these objects is not dependent on people or their beliefs.
  2. Experiences: The second level of abstraction focuses on individual experiences. Although these experiences may involve the same objects, they differ according to personal interpretation. This level is therefore subjective.
  3. Concepts: The third level of abstraction involves discussions around abstract thoughts and ideas (concepts), such as beliefs, values, and individual cognitive frameworks (schemas). Concepts are based on reality, but often do not literally reflect it. (Hinds, Patterson, & Pfeffer, 2005)

Levels of Abstraction
Figure 2: A summary of levels of abstraction. (Adapted from: Hinds, Patterson, & Pfeffer, 2005)

As they progress, the information at each level of abstraction become more difficult to communicate, because conceptual knowledge often requires a deeper understanding than concrete details. As a result, while experts can tend to think and explain ideas with highly abstract language, novices often start with more concrete questions. Understanding these levels of abstraction is vital because effective communication and scaffolding are prerequisites of being an effective teacher. To support a student in their comprehension of an abstract or theoretical concept, try to first start with simple, object-based explanations, and then work your way towards abstract concepts.

Fluency

Fluency and comprehension are closely linked. For students to comprehend what they are being taught, they first need to be able adequately take in the information with speed and accuracy. This property of how information is presented is known as fluency. In his article on the impact of the use of unnecessarily-complex language, Daniel Oppenheimer (2005) notes that increasing fluency increases perceptions of truth, confidence (in the author), frequency, and liking of the information. During five experiments on the perception of intelligence based on overly-academic writing, Oppenheimer found that participants consistently rated writing containing long, complex words harder to read and understand. This perception extended to the authors of the text, who were deemed less intelligent than the authors of text containing more straightforward language (Oppenheimer, 2005:151-152).

To provide you greater context around Oppenheimer’s (2005) findings, brief summaries of some of the experiments are included below:

  • Experiment 1: Participants were asked to judge admission into a graduate program based on student writing excerpts. Authors who wrote more complex text were given poorer admissions ratings.
  • Experiment 2: Participants were asked to rate author intelligence based on excerpts from Descartes’ Meditation IV. The more complex the translation, the lower the participant’s assessment of the text (regardless of previous expectations of author intelligence).
  • Experiment 3: Participants were asked to rate author intelligence and comprehension level based on sociology dissertation abstracts. The more (unnecessarily) complex the abstract, the lower participants’ evaluation of the author.
  • Experiment 4: Participants were asked to rate author intelligence when reading passages in an assortment of different fonts. Excerpts presented in “non-fluent” (illegible) fonts were deemed to have been written by less intelligent authors.

From the results of the experiments above, it appears that it is worthwhile to “write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent” (Oppenheimer, 2005:152). This is true not only of students, in their writing, but also of teachers, in their delivery of content. Although there may be jargon that is specific to your discipline, it is a good idea to first introduce concepts using language (and fonts) that is clear, concise, and easy to understand. Once you have established (through testing) student fluency and comprehension, you can then refer to and discuss these concepts using the technical terms with which they are associated, when necessary.

Analogies

An analogy is a linguistic tool used to explain the relationship between two concepts. Teachers often make use of analogies to better facilitate and support student comprehension of (the relationship between) complex or abstract concepts. There are different types of analogies, including synonyms, antonyms, cause and effect, and symbols and their representations (Heick, 2017).

Table 1: The common types of analogies (and their relationships) available to teachers. (Adapted from: Heick, 2017)

Types of analogies Relationship
Synonym is similar in meaning to
Antonym is similar in opposite to
Part to whole is part of
Category or type is a type or kind of
Object to function is used to
Performer to related action does or performs
Cause and effect is a cause or indication of
Degree of intensity is a small or large
Symbol and representation is a symbol of

Broadly speaking, analogies can be divided into two categories, namely surface analogies and deep analogies:

  1. Surface analogies: A surface analogy is one that is straightforward and easy to understand. Concepts that are explained through surface analogies often have simple relationships with one another. Part-to-whole and category type analogies are examples of surface analogies. 
  2. Deep analogies: A deep analogy tends to explore a more complex relationship between concepts. These analogies may be used to explain how elaborate systems or abstract concepts work. Cause-and-effect and symbol-and-representation analogies can be considered deep analogies.

In the context of the learning environment, analogies help students comprehend unfamiliar concepts by grounding them in the familiar. To do so, students are required to first critically analyze the familiar concepts and how they relate to each other, and then apply that knowledge (gained through analysis) to the unfamiliar concepts. Analogies can therefore be a way of promoting active learning, as students are encouraged to take part in the construction of their own knowledge (Heick, 2017).

Implicit vs. Explicit Knowledge

Implicit or “embedded” knowledge refers to the knowledge individuals have of processes (i.e., understanding how to do something like ride a bicycle). These processes (once learned explicitly) are often unconscious and therefore may be difficult to explain to others. Access to implicit knowledge is largely based on the automatic recall of codified information. As you will recall, this is characteristic of System 1 thinking. Sources of implicit knowledge include culture as well as routines or habits (whether learned or innate) (Beilock et al., 2001).

As with the curse of knowledge, when teaching students, it is important to be aware of the implicit knowledge you have of a concept or process, and how students may not have access to that knowledge. If this knowledge is integral to their academic progress and performance, it helps to actively make that implicit knowledge explicit to your students. This can be done by providing them with explicit sources based on their implicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge, by contrast, is formalized, codified, articulated knowledge. It is knowledge that is easily stored and freely available through various sources (such as textbooks, websites, articles, etc.) and can therefore be identified in and taught to others with greater ease (Beilock et al., 2001). 

Due to the nature of explicit knowledge, it is important that individuals continually review, update, or discard this information to ensure it remains relevant. As a teacher, this is a vital part of your role as a learning facilitator. This can be done by using formal and summative assessments to test and monitor student acquisition and recall of explicit knowledge (through multiple-choice or definition-based questions, for example). As explicit knowledge is based on the explicit recall of information (without analysis), it is associated with System 1’s cognitive processes.

Implicit v. Explicit Knowledge
Figure 3: The differences between implicit and explicit knowledge. (Adapted from: Beilock et al., 2001)

For more information...

Association for Psychological Science. 2012. ‘I knew it all along…didn’t I?’ – Understanding hindsight bias.

Beilock, S. L., Afremow, J. A., Rabe, A. L., & Carr, T. H. 2001. “Don’t miss!” The debilitating effects of suppressive imagery on golf putting performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 23(3):200-221.

Epley, N. & Waytz, A. 2010. Mind perception. Handbook of social psychology. John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey.

Epley, N., Keysar, B., Van Boven, L. & Gilovich, T. 2004. Perspective taking as egocentric anchoring and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social psychology. 87(3):327.

Fischhoff, B. 1975. Hindsight is not equal to foresight: The effect of outcome knowledge on judgment under uncertainty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 1(3):288.

Heick, T. 2017. A guide for teaching with analogies.

Hinds, P.J., Patterson, M. & Pfeffer, J. 2001. Bothered by abstraction: The effect of expertise on knowledge transfer and subsequent novice performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. 86(6):1232.

Nickerson, R. S. 1999. How we know—and sometimes misjudge—what others know: Imputing one's own knowledge to others. Psychological Bulletin. 125(6):737.

Oppenheimer, D.M. 2005. Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 20(2):139-156.

Roese, N.J. & Vohs, K.D. 2012. Hindsight Bias. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 7(5):411 – 426.

Waytz, A. 2017. 2017: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

Zander, T., Öllinger, M. & Volz, K. G. 2016. Intuition and insight: Two processes that build on each other or fundamentally differ?Frontiers in Psychology. 7:1395.