The Novice Brain

novice_brainAs designers and developers, one of our purposes in life is to help novices in a particular skill or content area gain new levels of competency. Because the mental structures of a novice differ from those of the expert, instructional strategies should be quite different for the novice than for the expert. Let’s climb inside the brain of a novice and see why.

A Minimal Network

When a person has a limited amount of knowledge in a particular domain, it’s the same as saying the person has a limited network of mental structures or schemas related to the content area. Assuming we are now looking inside the brain of a novice, we find a bit of information here and a mental image there, but not a coherent network of knowledge that we’d find in the brain of an expert.

For example, if someone is new at project management, he or she might have a sense of how to make a project schedule, because most adults have planned things at one time or another. But this wouldn’t constitute the vast network of knowledge an expert has constructed. Thus, an important characteristic is that the novice has not yet built a meaningful and organized network of mental structures related to the subject.

Ineffective Perceptual Discrimination

Many factors affect how people take in information through the senses and one key factor is that mental schemas guide perception. Because novices have a limited knowledge set, their schemas won’t necessarily lead them to the most important sensory information nor will their mental structures facilitate effective discrimination. An obvious example is the difference between an expert radiologist and a lay person. Whereas the expert can discriminate between normal anatomy, variations in anatomy and aberrations in anatomy, the layperson can look at an X-ray and fail to discriminate anything unusual, seeing “just a bone.”

Retrieval of Information

When knowledge structures have gaps because the information is not well-connected or well-organized, very few if any retrieval cues will work to recall the information. One reason for not recalling information is that the novice has very few mental paths for reaching the information. The next time you don’t know the answer to a question, simply blame it on your insufficient schemas—it’s not your fault. Novices don’t have a robust network of knowledge for recalling information.

Mental Models

Another interesting thing to note as we look around the novice brain is that there are no mental models related to the topic at hand or we might see a few incomplete or inaccurate mental models. A mental model is a generalized idea about how something in the world works—a situation, a system or an event. With the proper mental models, a person can predict what will most likely happen as the result of an action, which helps in problem-solving. One reason experts are good problem-solvers is that they’ve built sophisticated mental models in their domain.

Think about the first time you added paper to a copy machine. You probably had a very fuzzy mental model of how to do this. As you figured out how to locate the paper tray and insert paper, you constructed a more accurate mental model. Then when a similar situation arose with another copy machine, your trusty mental model helped you figure it out. So another important characteristic of novices is that they often have incomplete or faulty mental models in a content area, which hampers their ability to solve problems. Experts on the other hand, have lots of opportunity to fine-tune their mental models.

In the next article, we’ll look at some ways to design for the novice.

Related Articles:
The Expert’s Brain
Designing For Experts
10 Relevant Facts About The Brain

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