The Expert or the Expert Learner

The Benander (2009) article gave rise to some interesting questions about novices and experts. What distinguishes the “novice’ from the “expert’?  Is it possible to return to the novice state? As educators, how do we help students move from the novice to the expert state?

First, what distinguishes the “novice’ from the “expert’? This question relies on one’s definition of “expert’ and “novice.’  According to Callison & Lamb (2003), “An expert is someone who has a high degree of proficiency, skill, and knowledge in a particular subject.’  This definition would support the idea that expertise is a set state that one attains in a distinct area, and does not translate to other disciplines. However, they go on to further define “experts’ as those who are “able to effectively think about and solve problems, see patterns in information, and are able to identify solutions’ (Callison & Lamb, 2003). If the expert is defined as an individual with highly developed reasoning and problem solving skills, then it follows that expertise should translate across disciplines. As a teacher it is easy to identify students who are expert test takers and show proficiency on assessments, but whose success does not necessarily translate into expertise of the content.

Second, the studies presented by Benander (2009) indicate that one could return to a novice state when exploring disciplines outside of one’s own discipline of expertise. Is it possible to return to the novice state, or do the skills utilized by experts translate to areas outside their discipline? I personally feel that expertise is translatable. I was first trained and worked as a fisheries biologist and later switched to my second career in education. This change theoretically returned me to the role of novice, however, I do not feel that I could be considered a true novice. I felt that the skills I had aquired with my first Masters and the experience I had gained as a biologist lent itself to my new career.

It is perhaps not surprising that I still felt a certain confidence when moving from scientist to science teacher, but I have experienced this feeling when beginning in other areas, that were well outside my previous area of expertise, such as learning German, downhill skiing and knitting. I believe it is the way one approaches learning that defines the novice from the expert. I like to use an idea from my former advisor, Dr. Nicholas Hughes who always espoused looking for the “pattern and process’ in scientific inquiry. This idea is true in nearly all fields and represents the idea that experts approach problems differently than novices regardless of field or background. By looking for the pattern, experts are really looking for the “big picture’ ideas and the “process’ is understanding the “why’ behind the observed pattern. Experts draw upon and add to their schema in organized ways. Whereas the novice is more concerned with “getting it right’ versus understanding why the right answer is what it is. Their understanding is not developed using background knowledge, but is memorized, it is disjointed and does not build schema.

Finally, if we accept the idea that the role of expert is that of the expert learner, how do we as educators move students from novice to expert status? As a teacher, our primary goal should be to develop expert learners. According to Bransford & NRC (2000), there are methods to presenting material that can teach the valuable reasoning skills that will allow students to become expert learners. Educators should present content based around big ideas so students/novices become aware of what patterns look like. Educators are typically very good at presenting foundational knowledge, the next step is helping the novice to find relationships or patterns between the information. Once students can identify patterns in new material, then they can develop an understanding of what is responsible for the pattern or why it exists. This step of independently developing understanding of new patterns and their causes moves the novice learner to the level of expert learner.

Works Cited

Benander, R. (2009). Experiential learning in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2), 36—41.

Bransford, J., & National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Callison, D., & Lamb, A. (2003). Expert vs Novice Information Scientists. Retrieved from

12 thoughts on “The Expert or the Expert Learner

  1. Lori

    I used the “How People Learn” text in a college teaching class that I took during grad school at the Colorado School of Mines years ago. That course and text in particular inspired my interest in teaching and the science of learning. I agree that the expertise associated with knowing how to learn is translatable… particularly once we become conscious of learning as a process, rather than simply trying to master content. One of the best lessons I learned in that college teaching course was to be honest with my students about my teaching and methods. If I am trying a new teaching technique – I tell them what I am trying to achieve, and why.

  2. Owen

    Nice piece, Jenny.

    As I read through your thoughtful insights, I couldn’t help but think that we tend to approach this subject from the viewpoint of unified cohorts. What do we do when we have a diverse cohort with a diversity of backgrounds and a spectrum of foundational experiences from novice to expert? How do we design learning experiences for such a group? Do we design for the median? For the upper quartile of learning ability, for the experts and maybe most of those who are in the middle? Do we knowingly and perhaps purposefully leave some potential novices out of the picture?

    On the subject of returning to the novice state, a few years ago I tried to pick up snowboarding. 🙂 I am still negotiating that learning space every time I put that board on. The physical learning space is obviously different than the idea-driven space. Are there others? Are there subdivisions of those? Picking up the snowboard at age 40 – will I ever be an expert? (I can tell you I won’t). Are there similar limitations in the idea-driven space?

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