Understanding the difference between novice learners and expert learners is key to effective instructional design. This article presents the characteristics of the novice learner that are thought to affect how beginners acquire and apply new concepts and skills. However, if you want to jump ahead to the learning design aspect, see How to Design for the Novice Learner.
What is a novice learner?
A novice learner is a person who has little or no previous knowledge or experience in a particular domain. The characteristics of the novice learner differ from those of the expert. Thus, the instructional strategies you use to help novices build skills should be quite different for the novice than for the expert. Let’s climb inside the brain of a novice learner and look more closely at their characteristics.
Beginners Have a Limited Network of Knowledge
When a person has a limited amount of knowledge in a content area, it implies they have few schemas (mental structures) related to the content. Imagine a bit of information here and perhaps a mental image there. According to this theory, you would not find a coherent network of knowledge like you would 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 project manager has constructed. Thus, one important difference between novices and expert is that the novice has not yet built a meaningful and organized network of mental structures for the subject.
Novices May Be Easily Overwhelmed
It can be difficult for beginning learners to determine what is essential and relevant information when faced with previously unseen material. Novice learners do not yet have the mental framework in place to accommodate large amounts of information. Faced with processing too much information, the novice will experience a high cognitive load, which detracts from learning.
Novice Learners Have Ineffective Perceptual Discrimination
Many factors affect how people take in information through the senses. 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. The difference between an expert radiologist and a novice demonstrates one of the key characteristics of the novice learner. An expert radiologist can discriminate between normal anatomy, variations in anatomy and aberrations in anatomy. The novice can look at an X-ray and fail to discriminate anything unusual, seeing “just a bone.”
Novice Learners and 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.
Novice vs Expert 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. This highlights another outstanding characteristic of the novice learner. They most likely have very limited or incomplete mental models related to the topic at hand. One reason experts are good problem-solvers is that they’ve built sophisticated and accurate mental models in their domain. A novice must rely on trial and error to solve problems.
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. The novice’s incomplete or faulty mental models in a content area, hampers the person’s 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.
- Seel, N. M.(ed.) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Entry: Novice Learning. Springer Link, 2012.
- Wittwer, J. & A. Renkl. Why Instructional Explanations Often Do Not Work: A Framework for Understanding the Effectiveness of Instructional Explanations. Educational Psychologist, 2008, 43:1, 49-64,