How Experts Differ from Novices

People who have developed expertise in particular areas are, by definition, able to think effectively about problems in those areas. Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. 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.

This chapter illustrates key scientific findings that have come from the study of people who have developed expertise in areas such as chess, physics, mathematics, electronics, and history. We discuss these examples not because all school children are expected to become experts in these or any other areas, but because the study of expertise shows what the results of successful learning look like. In later chapters we explore what is known about processes of learning that can eventually lead to the development of expertise.

We consider several key principles of experts’ knowledge and their potential implications for learning and instruction:

  1. Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.

  2. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.

  3. Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalized” on a set of circumstances.

  4. Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.

  5. Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.

  6. Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations.

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