Common sense tells us that we should design differently for novices than for experts. Wouldn’t you expect a novice swimmer to learn new strokes differently than an advanced swimmer? But if common sense doesn’t convince you of this, than the expertise reversal effect will.
What It Is
The basic tenet of the expertise reversal effect, based on convincing research, is that a person’s level of prior knowledge greatly influences the effectiveness of learning materials. So that instructional approaches that are beneficial for beginning learners are often ineffective or even detrimental for advanced learners.
It’s all based on the theory of cognitive load. The limitations of working memory make it necessary to avoid overloading it. But here’s the catch: what induces cognitive load in a novice could be different than what induces cognitive load in an expert.
For example, novices in a subject need extra instructional guidance, like demonstrations of how to work through a problem or task or replacing text with a voice over to avoid split attention. But these types of approaches are either ineffective for advanced learners or even worse, they may have the reverse effect and interfere with learning. Why, this sounds like an instructional design nightmare!
Thou Shalt Not Interfere
Why does the reversal effect happen? Several studies demonstrated that for advanced learners, processing the type of redundant information presented to a novice, could induce unnecessary cognitive load and distract the expert from the new material to be learned.
This is most likely because advanced learners have knowledge structures organized for efficiency and effectiveness in the real world. When they encounter too much instructional guidance, they have to stop to integrate and cross-reference this redundant material with their available knowledge structures, which uses up valuable cognitive resources.
In order to avoid the expertise reversal effect, designers will need to ensure that materials can be dynamically adapted to the cognitive characteristics of the learner. Experts in a domain shouldn’t have to process information extraneous to their learning. Instead, they should be able to leverage and take advantage of their broad knowledge base. Here are some ways you can design for this:
- Allow learners to skip extra steps and detailed guidance.
- Use a design model that allows for independent exploration, like Thiagi’s model.
- Provide support for informal approaches to learning.
- Provide rapid diagnostic tests at the start that will point each learner to the correct level of instruction.
- Allow the learner to choose the level at which they want to enter a learning experience.
- Allow the learner to perform a task and then identify how difficult he or she thought the task was. From this information, guide the learner to the appropriate level.
I see a pyramid here, where novice learners might need a more structured learning experience and as they build their skills and knowledge, they will benefit from a more open learning environment. The bottom line is this: when designing for a broad audience, a fixed and one-size-fits-all approach won’t suffice. What are some other ways to design for the reversal effect?
- Kalyuga, Slava. The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23–31.
- Kalyuga, Slava. Managing Cognitive Load in ICT-based learning.
- Slava Kalyuga and Alexander Renkl. Expertise reversal effect and its instructional
implications: introduction to the special issue. Instr Sci (2010) 38:209–215.
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