Instructional Science

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 27–52 | Cite as

Is underestimation less detrimental than overestimation? The impact of experts’ beliefs about a layperson’s knowledge on learning and question asking

  • Jörg WittwerEmail author
  • Matthias Nückles
  • Alexander Renkl


Although prior research has shown that experts tend to overestimate or underestimate what laypersons actually know, little is known about the specific consequences of biased estimations for communication. To investigate the impact of biased estimations of a layperson’s knowledge on the effectiveness of experts’ explanations, we conducted a web-based dialog experiment with 45 pairs of experts and laypersons. We manipulated the experts’ mental model of the layperson by presenting them either valid information about the layperson’s knowledge or information that was biased towards overestimation or underestimation. Results showed that the experts adopted the biased estimations and adapted their explanations accordingly. Consequently, the laypersons’ learning from the experts’ explanations was impaired when the experts overestimated or underestimated the layperson’s knowledge. In addition, laypersons whose knowledge was overestimated more often generated questions that reflected comprehension problems. Laypersons whose knowledge was underestimated asked mainly for additional information previously not addressed in the explanations. The results suggest that underestimating a learner during the instructional dialog is as detrimental to learning as is the overestimation of a learner’s knowledge. Thus, the provision of effective explanations presupposes an accurate mental model of the learner’s knowledge prerequisites.


Adaptive instruction Advice giving Computer-mediated communication Expert-layperson communication Informal learning Learning from instructional texts Question asking 



This research was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; [German Research Foundation]) with a project grant awarded to Matthias Nückles and Alexander Renkl (contract NU 129/1-1). We thank Tarik Gasmi for the programming of the assessment tool database system. Many thanks also go to our student research assistants, Christine Otieno, Isabel Braun, Eva März, and Sandra Hübner, for their help with many practical aspects of the project such as data collection and scoring. We also wish to thank Marcia Neff and Susan Bell for their proofreading.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jörg Wittwer
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Matthias Nückles
    • 1
  • Alexander Renkl
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  2. 2.Leibniz Institute for Science Education at the University of KielKielGermany

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