Help for students, part 1: Breaking the curse of the unknown unknowns

Students often ask whether I can offer any tips on preparing for and writing exams. Sometimes they are new students who haven’t developed study strategies yet, and sometimes they have just become frustrated with strategies that don’t seem to be working for them. Sometimes they are panicked and desperate, and end their emails with “HELP” followed by several exclamation points. (Never a good sign.) So I thought it might be time to jot these things down in one place, rather than writing them over and over again in emails to unhappy students who waited to ask for help until it was too late.

If there is one thing that causes more problems for students preparing for exams than any other, it would be the unknown unknowns:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”  Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, 12 Feb 2002

When studying, known knowns are the topics you are confident about, and which you are right to be confident about. Known unknowns are the deficits in your knowledge that you are aware of, and which you therefore have a chance to fix. Where you get in trouble, however, are the unknown unknowns- the deficits in your knowledge that you don’t realize exist. You can’t fix those because you don’t know they’re there. At least, you don’t know they’re there until you hit an exam question you didn’t realize you were unprepared for. Then they become known unknowns, but it’s too late to do anything about them.

Here are two examples of what a run-in with unknown unknowns can sound like. Unfortunately, I receive emails like this on a regular basis:


“I realize I am not going to pass this course even with the 20+ hours I studied over the last week. I have trouble putting the definitions on paper, I remember reading them and seeing them but can’t find the definition…”


“I felt as though I at least I completed the test and did not leave it blank, and felt confident that half my responses where right, but must have gotten confused…”

Note: “Bert” and “Sally” are not the real names of these students, and may or may not reflect their gender(s).

Sally’s unknown unknowns turned into known unknowns during the exam. In contrast, Bert emailed me because he was shocked that his exam grade was so low- Bert’s unknown unknowns were so sneaky that he got right through the exam without even noticing them.

Both Sally and Bert blamed the exam format for their problems. Their exam was short answer, and they felt that if they had clues in the form of multiple choice questions, then things would have gone better. As Bert put it,

“… there is no way someone first year can be capable to do this, let alone without instruction, or scientific key terms without getting terms mixed up, since there is no multiple questions [for] deductive logical reasoning…”

I think that part of Sally’s and Bert’s problem was that they underestimated how much understanding they would need to be successful on the exam. Ultimately, though, exam format should not be an issue.  If you know the answers, it shouldn’t matter whether the question format is short answer, multiple choice, essay, or interpretive dance. If you know it, you know it, and if you don’t, it makes just as much sense to blame your pencil.

The main problem that Bert and Sally had is that brains can be deceiving. In Sally’s case, after more than 20 hours of studying, everything looked familiar to her brain, and she believed it when it told her that she was ready for the exam. Unfortunately for Sally, the appearance of the page was what was familiar, not the information on it.

For both Sally and Bert it would have been a simple matter to set a trap for the unknown unknowns: if Sally and Bert had put their notes away every few minutes and tried to explain verbally or in writing what they had just read, they would have found very quickly that they couldn’t do it. Then they could have fixed the problem. Unfortunately, this is very hard work and should not be done for more than 45 minutes or so without taking a break. In Sally’s case, after many sustained hours of studying, her brain would have been too tired to manage it. She probably continued reading and not absorbing partly because she was too tired to do anything else.

Some of the sneakiest unknown unknowns hide so well that you might need someone else’s help to find them. Those are the kind where you remember information, but don’t realize that you have some part of it incorrect. The best way to trap these is to work with someone who might be able to pick up errors in your understanding as you explain the course material to them. This could be someone else in the class, or just a friend who asks you questions by referring to the textbook. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found helpful for turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns:

  • Scare them out into the open: Imagine that your instructor were to call you out of the blue to ask you questions about the course. What would you not want him or her to ask you about? Along the same lines, what would you not want to be asked about on the exam?
  • Treat learning objectives as questions and attempt to answer them without looking at your notes.
  • Reorganize information into diagrams and tables. For example, if you made a table to compare and contrast Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, you might find that you can say something about Neanderthal body size, but you don’t remember how that compares to Cro-Magnon body size.   Diagrams and tables have the added benefit of being much easier to remember than lists of facts.
  • Study by explaining topics out loud to yourself or a friend. There is a difference between reading facts and trying to mentally organize them so you can say them out loud, and that difference can be enough to throw you off balance and expose unknown unknowns.
Categories: Assessment, Challenges, For students, Learning strategies | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Help for students, part 1: Breaking the curse of the unknown unknowns

  1. Jeff

    I know my unknown unknowns outnumber my known knows and my known unknowns!

    • Maybe some sub-categories are required. There are the known unknown unknowns (unknowns you don’t know about, but which you suspect exist), and the unknown unknown unknowns (of which one has no clue whatsoever). Having unknown unknown unknowns is also sometimes referred to as knowing just enough to be dangerous. I would argue that one’s ratio of known unknown unknowns to unknown unknown unknowns is directly proportional to the amount of learning one has done. In other words, the more I learn, the dumber I feel. You must be pretty smart. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Help for students, part 2: Memorizing vs. understanding | Petragogy

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