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Are you a course creator cursed with knowledge? Here’s how to break the spell for good

As an e-learning entrepreneur, you rely a lot on feedback. In an ideal world, the feedback would always be positive, but in reality, many course creators find themselves in a situation where learners complain about online courses being too difficult.  While it can be tempting to brush it off, you are probably not dealing with picky learners, but you might be "cursed with knowledge." 

So what do you do when several people find it too difficult and drop out of your online courses?  Take a deep breath and remind yourself that all feedback can be constructive and it's up to you to solve the problem, starting from exploring your own biases and assumptions about what your learners know or should know. 

What does it mean to be cursed with knowledge?

When Thanos tells Tony Stark in a popular Avengers movie, "you are not the only one cursed with knowledge," he means that the knowledge provided by the Infinity Stones has made him aware of the fate of the Universe transforming him into a villain.  Rest assured, your curse is not nearly as dramatic, and you are also not alone. 

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias in which we assume that other people have the same background knowledge as ourselves.

Stanford graduate Elizabeth Newton made an excellent demonstration of the concept in 1990.  She divided a group of subjects into two: tappers and listeners.  Then, she asked the tappers to think of a song and try to tap the song on a table rhythmically.  The researcher asked the listeners to figure out which song the tappers were tapping.  Out of the 120 songs, the tappers predicted a 50% correct guessing rate by the listeners.  The results were staggeringly lower: only 2.5 % correct guesses.  When we are cursed with knowledge, we are like the tappers – we assume that because a song is playing clearly in our mind, others will know it too.

Read more: 7 Cognitive biases to boost conversion rates in online courses

How does being cursed with knowledge translate into your online courses?

You may be convinced that too much knowledge can hinder your work as a course creator but aren’t sure how that can happen in your work. Here are some examples: 

This cognitive bias is obvious when you fail to show empathy towards your learners during the course design process.  You should carefully build your learner persona and be mindful that this will help with more than marketing.  Yes, lead generation is essential when you are an entrepreneur, but so are recommendations and testimonials. You want your learners to feel like you have made something abundantly clear, shared crucial knowledge, or helped them develop an important skill.  You don't want them to feel that they have signed up for the wrong course. 

There are many ways in which your “knowledge curse” can get in the way of a great learner experience:

  • Language that is overly sophisticated.  Showing that you have expertise in your field is good, but it doesn't mean you have to overuse specialty vocabulary.  For example, if you are talking about confirmation bias and want to refer to the research, try to adapt the language to the audience. Instead of “Biases in the consideration of evidence can reduce the chances of consensus between people with different viewpoints. ” (a direct quote from the abstract of a scientific publication) use less formal language (while still mentioning the source): "Biases make it less likely for individuals who have two different viewpoints to reach a consensus."  
  • Sharing knowledge that requires a higher level of expertise than the audience has.  If your online course is about cognitive biases and how to become aware of them, your audience is probably interested in Psychology.  However, that doesn’t make them experts, so it's risky to assume that they have a deep understanding of how the brain works.  If you talk about complex cognitive processes with the expectation that the learners have the same background information you have, there's a good chance you'll lose them very quickly.  Instead,t's best to break your course into smaller courses or modules, starting from beginner and working up to advanced or expert, so that people can select where they want to start based on their level of knowledge.
  • Using references that learners don’t understand.  When we try to make a point, we often use scientific or cultural references to make it more vivid.  While these are very powerful, make sure they work.  If I were to design a course on cognitive biases, I'd use the movie Zootopia as a perfect example of how confirmation bias can be harmful.  Zootopia is an animation in which the protagonist, Judy, is a bunny who dreams of becoming a big city police officer despite everyone telling her it's not something a rabbit can do.  She works very hard and eventually gets her badge but faces discrimination when she joins the force.  While she is an equal opportunist and has to fight hard to prove herself, she succumbs to her own confirmation bias about predatory animals being the only ones capable of violence.  Because of this short summary, you know why this is a good example.  If I’d just said, "and to demonstrate confirmation bias, there's no better example than Zootopia," and left it at that, some of you would either be googling the reference or dismissing it altogether because it doesn’t ring a bell.

Read more: 4 Awesome ways to incorporate stories in your online course

What can course creators do to break the curse of knowledge?

Whether it is brought to your attention by learner feedback or you feel that you can't connect to your audience, becoming aware of the curse of knowledge is the first step in breaking it.  Here are some things you can do at each stage of course creation and deployment:

Before designing the course:

1.  Know your learner persona well 

 Who are your learners?, What do they want to learn? What is their level of knowledge?  If there are differences within your audience, consider building several modules based on mastery.  This will make your portfolio richer, and it will also help you target different types of learners.

2.  Define the learning objectives

 Anything you add to the course needs to support one of those goals.  It's an excellent way to weed out the pieces of content that are either not relevant or are too much for what you set out to achieve.

3.  Use learning sequencing

 Use learning sequencing to break down the information and activities so it is easier for the learners to follow and for you to see any gaps between sequences.  It will also make your course seem more organized and professional.

While learners are taking the online course

4. Learner engagement throughout the self-paced course

If your e-learning course runs asynchronously, it's trickier to catch on right away when something goes wrong.    However, learner questions and direct feedback and their answers to your queries are excellent indicators that they are engaged and understand the material. If you notice that participants get stuck at a certain point or that their answers to the quizzes are wrong on the same items, it indicates that the knowledge is too extensive or not clear enough.

After the completion of the online course

5. Change things according to learner feedback  

Check the learner feedback and adjust the structure and the content accordingly.  You don’t have to make changes to accommodate every comment, but don't leave them unaddressed if there are common complaints.

6.  Analyze the information you get from your learning platform

A learning management system can show you valuable analytics about the learners' interaction with your course – where they moved fast through it and where they stumbled as well as the instances where they had to go back – this usually happens when they have to answer quiz questions and they’re unsure of the correct answer. Of course, you can also see who dropped out early and where exactly they got stuck. In some cases, it may be the more challenging modules that contain difficult language, etc. 

7.   Analyze learner interest

Look at how many of your learners have tapped into the extra resources – if you have linked them to your online course – or reached out to you with additional questions. These are a good sign of learner engagement but if most of them are requests for more details or depth, that's an indication that you have broken the curse of knowledge but went too much in the opposite direction, and you should try to find the sweet spot.

Read more: 8 Tips for increasing learner participation rates

You don’t have to be cursed with knowledge

As a course creator, you need to be knowledgeable about the topics at the base of your online courses. However, successful online courses usually share the most important information based on learners’ knowledge levels. You can break the curse of knowledge by being aware of it and becoming more in tune with your audience.  Think about the iceberg metaphor.  While you need to have a wealth of knowledge underneath, your course should be like the tip of the iceberg – the part that everyone can see and understand. 

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