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Science on Learning: Don’t Demand Expertise

Your students can't learn like experts can.

This is the final article exploring how cognitive science provides empirical support to the methods of a classical education through a series of six principles about learning. The last two articles can be found here and here. This culminating article seeks to extend learning applications. The final principle we are exploring in this series is that: Learning is fundamentally different early and late in training.

Learners at different stages of learning organize information in fundamentally different ways than one another and use information differently. Having novices try to learn like experts has been tried and found detrimental to their progress. Every artist starts as an amateur. Learning is not linear; it is an effortful undertaking where we progress toward deeper understanding rather than just jumping to the end of the journey.

Novices in any domain focus primarily on surface features of a problem whereas experts focus in on its deeper structure. This happens because experts have such a rich knowledge-base of the domain that they are not distracted by things insignificant to what needs to be focused on. However, novices and those who lack rich knowledge of the domain focus on things that are readily apparent—the surface features—and, as such, need guidance to maximize their learning.

To learn effectively, novices require guidance, interactions with more knowledgeable people, and specific and precise feedback. Experts, however, experience what cognitive scientists call the expertise reversal effect in that their learning thrives in an unguided, ill-structured environment, which is pretty much the polar opposite! See these distinctions for how novices and experts are different in terms of learning:


  1. Have little relevant background knowledge memorized
  2. Rely on working memory to solve problems
  3. Have not memorized procedures of the domain
  4. See superficial details
  5. Learn best through explicit instruction
  6. Struggle to transfer principles to new content


  1. Have lots of relevant background knowledge memorized
  2. Rely on long-term memory to solve problems
  3. Have memorized procedures of the domain
  4. See underlying structures
  5. Learn best through discovery approaches
  6. Are able to transfer principles between related domains

What can we do to enhance learning through the intentional integration of this principle?

  • Provide plenty of guidance for most students.

Virtually all of our students are novices or only slightly experienced in any given domain. Thus, it is wise to provide sufficient scaffolding and guidance in order to maximize their learning. One great way to do this is through providing worked examples—detailed step-by-step completed problems done by an expert. Another great way to accomplish this is to ensure that corrective feedback is provided to students that is timely, precise, and points them toward growth.

  • As learners become more advanced in a domain, provide inquiry opportunities.

While our students will not become experts in any domain in the overwhelming majority of cases, that does not mean we cannot take advantage of discovery learning opportunities (research indicates that it takes about ten years of deliberate practice in a specific area to become an expert). When we are sure that our learners have sufficient background knowledge in place, we can engage them meaningfully in inquiry and discovery learning experiences that will help them reorganize their knowledge so they start thinking about deep structure. On a small scale, try using analogies, requiring comparison of contrasting cases, and having them systematize information into graphic representations after such knowledge is in place. On a larger scale, provide opportunities for projects that build upon learning and force students to inquire deeper into the domain. In this way you can scaffold them toward how experts learn and nudge them to showcase their understanding and put their own unique signature on it when the time is right!


Ericsson, K.A. & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49(8): 725-747.

Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1): 23-31.

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