Remember those Your Brain On Drugs commercials? They always used the analogy of an egg. That same analogy works well to represent the brain of an expert. The expert’s brain is like a hard-boiled egg. As designers and developers, we often have to turn a runny egg into a hard-boiled one.
An expert has knowledge structures that differ from those of a novice and it’s important to understand these differences. If we want experts to learn from our online courses, we should know how their brains function. And if we want to help novices increase their competencies, understanding the expert brain can help us move in the right direction.
A Network of Knowledge
Experts have knowledge structures that are solidified (like a hard-boiled egg). Through study and experience, experts build connections between concepts, principles and practical knowledge. Rather than retaining unrelated sets of isolated facts, expert knowledge appears to be organized in an inter-related network. Their network of knowledge includes both “knowing what” and “knowing how.”
When knowledge structures are inter-connected, different retrieval cues will call up the same information. For example, if you take your car to an expert mechanic, he or she will have several memory paths for recalling possible reasons your car isn’t running. The sounds that the engine makes is one path, hearing your verbal description of the problem is a second path and remembering previous customers with similar problems is a third path. Theoretically, the expert mechanic has at least three paths for retrieving information about the cause of a problem. In this way, an inter-connected network of knowledge provides multiple opportunities for recalling knowledge from long-term memory.
Well-organized and Meaningful Structures
Experts are good at making inferences, drawing conclusions and finding solutions, because their knowledge is well-organized. They most likely have a broader organizational structure than the novice, which serves as a structural framework for holding their content knowledge. This speeds up searching for the right information and is another characteristic for making information easy to retrieve. It’s the difference between having file folders strewn around a room and having the folders semantically arranged in a file cabinet. It’s easier to find the information in a file structure that is meaningfully organized.
Efficiency in Problem Solving
Over years of experience, experts refine and test their hypotheses and solutions. They recognize underlying patterns, interrelationships and system behaviors. This allows them to think holistically in their domain, building paradigms for various problems. Experts often have quick ways to resolve and troubleshoot an issue, because expert knowledge is applicable to a broad range of contexts and conditions. When they see a novel problem, they don’t need to waste time taking an irrelevant path. This makes them quick at solving problems. In some fields, solving problems becomes almost automatic.
Awareness of Their Own Cognition
Experts often excel at metacognition. They can watch themselves learn and solve problems. As they monitor and evaluate how well they are doing, they adjust their strategies to bring forth new approaches as needed for the task at hand. For example, a doctor who is an expert diagnostician will ask the patient a set of questions related to his or her symptoms. If the case becomes complex and the physician feels stumped, the expert will notice that the current strategy is not working. The physician will modify his or her approach by asking the patient a different set of questions, consulting a peer physician, or seeking additional tests.
The characteristics of the expert include having knowledge structures that are inter-connected and based on a broad, well-organized and meaningful framework. Experts think holistically and create paradigms for solving problems. They also continually evaluate their own thinking and problem-solving processes and adjust their strategies to optimize results. Keep this in mind when you teach experts and when you’re trying to improve the competencies of novices.
As to the hard-boiled egg metaphor, if you have egg salad for lunch, we’ll understand.