The purpose of most long-term learning experiences is to move an individual from a state of little proficiency in a skill to one of competence or even expertise. But what makes someone an expert? Cognitive psychology has some answers to this question.
Understanding expert thinking provides valuable insights into how to assist novices in developing similar skills and behaviors. Researchers have investigated the differences between experts and novices in a variety of fields. From this research, we can see that expertise is more than an accumulation of knowledge or experience.
A Network of Knowledge
Cognitive psychologists theorize that experts have a strong network of knowledge. Through study and experience, experts build connections between concepts, principles and practical knowledge. Rather than a random set of unrelated and isolated facts, expert knowledge is an interrelated network of “knowing what” and “knowing how.”
When knowledge structures are interconnected, different retrieval cues will call up the similar information. For example, if you take your car to an expert mechanic, they will have several memory paths for recalling possible reasons your car isn’t running. The sounds that the engine makes is one path, remembering previous customers with similar problems is a second path and recalling an illustration showing a similar problem 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 interconnected 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. Their knowledge is organized in a way that enhances meaning. Similar to filing and retrieving documents in an orderly way, an organized framework of knowledge will speed up searching and retrieving the right information for the task at hand.
Effective Problem Solving
“Faced with a problem situation, experts quickly form solutions that are more likely to be effective than solutions formed by novices,” (Ertmer et al. 2008). Over years of experience, experts refine and test their hypotheses and solutions. Their substantial knowledge affects what they notice and how they interpret information. These adaptations lead to better problem solving and performance (.
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. See Expert Thinking and Novice Thinking.
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 generate new approaches. For example, a doctor who is an expert diagnostician will ask the patient a set of questions related to their 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 their approach by asking the patient a different set of questions, consulting a peer physician, or seeking additional tests.
In summary, a novice differs in many ways from someone who has expertise in a domain. Experts have more knowledge and their knowledge is well-organized into a meaningful framework. They have better strategies for retrieving and using knowledge than novices. Experts think holistically and create paradigms for solving problems. They also continually evaluate their own thinking and problem-solving 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. For ideas on how to design for experts, see Novice Versus Expert Design Strategies: The Expert Reversal Effect. For general strategies that work for novices, see the articles on retrieval practice and elaboration.
- Ertmer, Peggy A. et al. How instructional design experts use knowledge and experience to solve ill-structured problems. Performance Improvement Quarterly, v21 n1 p17-42 2008. 26 pp.
- Logan, Gordon D. Automatic Control: How Experts Act Without Thinking. Psychological Review, Vol 125(4), Jul, 2018 pp. 453-485. http://www.psy.vanderbilt.edu/faculty/logan/Logan2018.pdf.
- Nelms, A.A. & M. Segura-Totten. Expert–Novice Comparison Reveals Pedagogical Implications for Students’ Analysis of Primary Literature. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2019 Winter; 18(4): ar56. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6829068/