2 How Experts Differ from Novices 31

Science Teaching Series

Internet Resources

I. Developing Scientific Literacy

II. Developing Scientific Reasoning

III. Developing Scientific Understanding

IV. Developing Scientific Problem Solving

V. Developing Scientific Research Skills

VI. Resources for Teaching Science

2 How Experts Differ from Novices

MEANINGFUL PATTERNS OF INFORMATION: Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems. (31) (examples; chapter 11, p206)

DeGroot concluded that the knowledge acquired over tens of thousands of hours of chess playing enabled chess masters to out-play their opponents. Specifically, masters were more likely to recognize meaningful chess configurations and realize the strategic implications of these situations; this recognition allowed them to consider sets of possible moves that were superior to others. (32)

CHUNKING: The superior recall ability of experts, illustrated in the example in the box, has been explained in terms of how they “chunk” various elements of a configuration that are related by an underlying function or strategy. Since there are limits on the amount of information that people can hold in short-term memory, short-term memory is enhanced when people are able to chunk information into familiar patterns (Miller, 1956). (33. (chunking examples from chunking; chapter 11, p206). In each case, expertise in a domain helps people develop a sensitivity to patterns of meaningful information that are not available to novices.(33)

The idea that experts recognize features and patterns that are not noticed by novices is potentially important for improving instruction. When viewing instructional texts, slides, and videotapes, for example, the information noticed by novices can be quite different from what is noticed by experts (e.g., Sabers et al., 1991; Bransford et al., 1988). One dimension of acquiring greater competence appears to be the increased ability to segment the perceptual field (learning how to see). Research on expertise suggests the importance of providing students with learning experiences that specifically enhance their abilities to recognize meaningful patterns of information (36). Example from Santa Susanna Mountains, or Nazca, Peru. (other sites)

ORGANIZATION OF KNOWLEDGE - We turn now to the question of how experts’ knowledge is organized and how this affects their abilities to understand and represent problems. Their knowledge is not simply a list of facts and formulas that are relevant to their domain; instead, their knowledge is organized around core concepts or “big ideas (see standards & frameworks)” that guide their thinking about their domains (36)

In an example from physics, experts and competent beginners (college students) were asked to describe verbally the approach they would use to solve physics problems. Experts usually mentioned the major principle(s) or law(s) that were applicable to the problem, together with a rationale for why those laws applied to the problem and how one could apply them (Chi et al., 1981) (chapter 17- dimensional analysis). In contrast, competent beginners rarely referred to major principles and laws in physics; instead, they typically described which equations they would use and how those equations would be manipulated (Larkin, 1981, 1983). (37)

Experts’ thinking seems to be organized around big ideas in physics, such as Newton’s second law and how it would apply, while novices tend to perceive problem solving in physics as memorizing, recalling, and manipulating equations to get answers. When solving problems, experts in physics often pause to draw a simple qualitative diagram (airplanes, vectors-plane, vectors, ray diagram) —they do not simply attempt to plug numbers into a formula. The diagram is often elaborated as the expert seeks to find a workable solution path (e.g., see Larkin et al., 1980; Larkin and Simon, 1987; Simon and Simon, 1978). (37)

Experts appear to possess an efficient organization of knowledge (chapter 8- organizing information ) with meaningful relations among related elements clustered into related units that are governed by underlying concepts and principles (38)

In mathematics, experts are more likely than novices to first try to understand problems, rather than simply attempt to plug numbers into formulas. (41)

Experts in other social sciences also organize their problem solving around big ideas (see, e.g., Voss et al., 1984). (42) (Example - G.R.A.P.E.S)

History texts sometimes emphasize facts without providing support for understanding (e.g., Beck et al., 1989, 1991). Many ways of teaching science also overemphasize facts (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Research Council, 1996). The Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) (Schmidt et al., 1997) criticized curricula that were “a mile wide and an inch deep” and argued that this is much more of a problem in America than in most other countries. (42)

CONTEXT AND ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE - The concept of conditionalized knowledge has implications for the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices that promote effective learning. Many forms of curricula and instruction do not help students conditionalize their knowledge: “Textbooks are much more explicit in enunciating the laws of mathematics or of nature than in saying anything about when these laws may be useful in solving problems” (Simon, 1980:92). (43) (example of inverse square law -geometry & physics; chapter 15)

FLUENT RETRIEVAL - People’s abilities to retrieve relevant knowledge can vary from being “effortful” to “relatively effortless” (fluent) to “automatic” (Schneider and Shiffrin, 1977). Automatic and fluent retrieval are important characteristics of expertise. (44) (Chapter 15 - Geometric principles in Science)

Since the amount of information a person can attend to at any one time is limited (Miller, 1956), ease of processing some aspects of a task gives a person more capacity to attend to other aspects of the task (LaBerge and Samuels, 1974; Schneider and Shiffrin, 1985; Anderson, 1981, 1982; Lesgold et al., 1988).

An important aspect of learning is to become fluent at recognizing problem types in particular domains—such as problems involving Newton’s second law or concepts of rate and functions—so that appropriate solutions can be easily retrieved from memory. The use of instructional procedures that speed pattern recognition are promising in this regard (e.g., Simon, 1980). (44)

EXPERTS AND TEACHING - The content knowledge necessary for expertise in a discipline needs to be differentiated from the pedagogical content knowledge that underlies effective teaching (Redish, 1996; Shulman, 1986, 1987). The latter includes information about typical difficulties that students encounter as they attempt to learn about a set of topics; typical paths students must traverse in order to achieve understanding; and sets of potential strategies for helping students overcome the difficulties that they encounter. Shulman (1986, 1987) argues that pedagogical content knowledge is not equivalent to knowledge of a content domain plus a generic set of teaching strategies; instead, teaching strategies differ across disciplines. Expert teachers know the kinds of difficulties that students are likely to face; they know how to tap into students’ existing knowledge in order to make new information meaningful; and they know how to assess their students’ progress. Expert teachers have acquired pedagogical content knowledge as well as content knowledge; see Box 2.4. In the absence of pedagogical content knowledge, teachers often rely on textbook publishers for decisions about how to best organize subjects for students. They are therefore forced to rely on the “prescriptions of absentee curriculum developers” (Brophy, 1983), who know nothing about the particular students in each teacher’s classroom. Pedagogical content knowledge is an extremely important part of what teachers need to learn to be more effective. (45)

ADAPTIVE EXPERTISE - Metacognition: The ability to recognize the limits of one’s current knowledge, then take steps to remedy the situation, is extremely important for learners at all ages.  (48)

Adaptive experts are able to approach new situations flexibly and to learn throughout their lifetimes. They not only use what they have learned, they are metacognitive and continually question their current levels of expertise and attempt to move beyond them. They don’t simply attempt to do the same things more efficiently; they attempt to do things better. A major challenge for theories of learning is to understand how particular kinds of learning experiences develop adaptive expertise or “virtuosos.” (48) 

CONCLUSION - Experts’ abilities to reason and solve problems depend on well-organized knowledge that affects what they notice and how they represent problems. Experts are not simply “general problem solvers” who have learned a set of strategies that operate across all domains. The fact that experts are more likely than novices to recognize meaningful patterns of information applies in all domains, whether chess, electronics, mathematics, or classroom teaching. In deGroot’s (1965) words, a “given” problem situation is not really a given. Because of their ability to see patterns of meaningful information, experts begin problem solving at “a higher place” (deGroot, 1965). An emphasis on the patterns perceived by experts suggests that pattern recognition is an important strategy for helping students develop confidence and competence. These patterns provide triggering conditions for accessing knowledge that is relevant to a task.

Studies in areas such as physics, mathematics, and history also demonstrate that experts first seek to develop an understanding of problems, and this often involves thinking in terms of core concepts or big ideas, such as Newton’s second law in physics. Novices’ knowledge is much less likely to be organized around big ideas; they are more likely to approach problems by searching for correct formulas and pat answers that fit their everyday intuitions.

Curricula that emphasize breadth of knowledge may prevent effective organization of knowledge because there is not enough time to learn anything in depth. Instruction that enables students to see models of how experts organize and solve problems may be helpful. However, as discussed in more detail in later chapters, the level of complexity of the models must be tailored to the learners’ current levels of knowledge and skills. While experts possess a vast repertoire of knowledge, only a subset of it is relevant to any particular problem. Experts do not conduct an exhaustive search of everything they know; this would overwhelm their working memory (Miller, 1956). Instead, information that is relevant to a task tends to be selectively retrieved (e.g., Ericsson and Staszewski, 1989; deGroot, 1965). The issue of retrieving relevant information provides clues about the nature of usable knowledge. Knowledge must be “conditionalized” in order to be retrieved when it is needed; otherwise, it remains inert (Whitehead, 1929). Many designs for curriculum instruction and assessment practices fail to emphasize the importance of conditionalized knowledge. For example, texts often present facts and formulas with little attention to helping students learn the conditions under which they are most useful. Many assessments measure only propositional (factual) knowledge and never ask whether students know when, where, and why to use that knowledge.

Another important characteristic of expertise is the ability to retrieve relevant knowledge in a manner that is relatively “effortless.” This fluent retrieval does not mean that experts always accomplish tasks in less time than novices; often they take more time in order to fully understand a problem. But their ability to retrieve information effortlessly is extremely important because fluency places fewer demands on conscious attention, which is limited in capacity (Schneider and Shiffrin, 1977, 1985). Effortful retrieval, by contrast, places many demands on a learner’s attention: attentional effort is being expended on remembering instead of learning. Instruction that focuses solely on accuracy does not necessarily help students develop fluency (e.g., Beck et al., 1989; Hasselbring et al., 1987; LaBerge and Samuels, 1974).

Expertise in an area does not guarantee that one can effectively teach others about that area. Expert teachers know the kinds of difficulties that students are likely to face, and they know how to tap into their students’ existing knowledge (scaffolding) in order to make new information meaningful plus assess their students’ progress. In Shulman’s (1986, 1987) terms, expert teachers have acquired pedagogical content knowledge and not just content knowledge. (This concept is explored more fully in Chapter 7.)

The concept of adaptive expertise raises the question of whether some ways of organizing knowledge lead to greater flexibility in problem solving than others (Hatano and Inagaki, 1986; Spiro et al., 1991). Differences between the “merely skilled” (artisans) and the “highly competent” (virtuosos) can be seen in fields as disparate as sushi making and information design. Virtuosos not only apply expertise to a given problem, they also consider whether the problem as presented is the best way to begin. The ability to monitor one’s approach to problem solving—to be metacognitive—is an important aspect of the expert’s competence. Experts step back from their first, oversimplistic interpretation of a problem or situation and question their own knowledge that is relevant. People’s mental models of what it means to be an expert can affect the degree to which they learn throughout their lifetimes. A model that assumes that experts know all the answers is very different from a model of the accomplished novice, who is proud of his or her achievements and yet also realizes that there is much more to learn. (48-50)