Weekly Writing 1–Novices vs experts

As I read Ruth Benander’s article, “Experiential learning in the scholarship of teaching and learning,’  (2009) I could not help but personalize the information, comparing her descriptions of experts and novices with my own experiences. I completed my undergraduate degree many years ago, but have been a student in numerous courses since that time.

I certainly agree with the author that the classroom experience is very different for the novice than the expert faculty member.   The expert teacher may be so familiar with the material and the expectations that he/she does not realize the murkiness of the student view.

A task becomes almost second nature when you have done it countless times. When I share with my granddaughter how to bake bread, I discover there are many instructions I unintentionally omit because I forget she doesn’t have as much baking experience. Over time I have become equipped with a bag of tools for a task. The novice’s tool bag is lacking or nonexistent.

How do I know what I don’t know? We all view situations from our own constructs, but I think when the content and format are unfamiliar, as our ONID courses are, we have the opportunity to experience the novice role again. Communication and interaction processes may be unfamiliar, as well as ways of discovering faculty expectations of students.

Knowing what we know as experts, can the expert truly experience the “confusion of novelty that students experience in classes’ described by Benander (2009)?  Perhaps not completely, but we can certainly try.

As a student, I may cry out that we cannot find directions or vital information; however, that part of me that has been the expert knows to keep digging, because what I need to know may be just an overlooked link. Initial assignments seem to be the most difficult as I try to ascertain the instructor’s expectations. Rubrics are helpful, but I am very out of practice at writing essays such as this assignment.

As a student, I have learned that I must be sure that I have read all the materials made available by the instructor before posing a question. Very likely the information I need is available if I make use of the online resources provided by the instructor.  Prior to this awareness, I struggled much more.

If my search for answers is fruitless and questions still exist, I may pose my question to the instructor or the course’s online community.  I recall one expert faculty preferred not to answer, but to leave it to me to figure out, claiming that was part of the experience–to be frustrated but continue to press forward on my own steam.  That experience made me reflect on how I would prefer my instructor to have responded and influences how I, in turn, will respond to my own students.  Because I exhaust all resources before asking, encouragement along with a nudge in the right direction would have been desirable in that instance.

In contrast, in one computer programming course I contacted the instructor after struggling with a problem for 29 hours. He responded by giving me the solution and said that I should have contacted him after 3 or 4 hours of work on the problem. I would have preferred to receive a hint to get me on the right track so that I could find the solution myself. From that experience I learned to give my Excel students suggestions for fixing formulas without ‘giving it all away’.

In the student role in my education courses, I find myself examining whether the instructor has modeled exemplary teaching methods. It can be a very humbling experience when I’m struck with, “Why didn’t I ever think of that?’ As a result, I may decide to incorporate that very element in my own teaching

As Benander (2009) described, I also learned the “greatest change was increased compassion for my students’. In preparation for teaching software application courses or courses that include computer-based interaction, I spend time working through the activities from the student viewpoint. This way I know where quicksand may appear and extra direction or support may be needed. Every semester I discover additional areas in need of clarification or augmentation. My goal is for the student to have that memorable experience of “sticking learning’ described by Benander (2009).

As Benander  (2009) discussed, as the novice student I have certainly felt incompetent and uncertain as to what to do or how to improve. In response to that experience, I have addressed the need for clear directions by using rubrics wherever possible to make it grading criteria clear. In addition, an explanation of where we’re going with new information or as I put it in class, “Why do we care?’ followed by a discussion of why the concept is meaningful.

Like most of you I use computers and computer applications daily. Although my students consider me an expert in many regards, I have no illusions that I know all or nearly all about any given topic. What I do claim is that if I don’t know I will work alongside the student to discover ways of gaining the knowledge needed, thus increasing student survival skills when the class ends.

Experts must be careful not to make any assumptions about what is known, even though the knowledge may  seem obvious (to the expert). In turn the novice must be aware that sometimes ‘figuring it out’ is part of the learning process.   When I experience the novice role again it helps me consider how to communicate better with my own students.

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

Cox, M. D. (2004). Introduction to Faculty Learning Communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning(97), 5-23.

5 thoughts on “Weekly Writing 1–Novices vs experts

  1. Lori

    I like your statement that: “In turn the novice must be aware that sometimes ‘figuring it out’ is part of the learning process.” I really feel that novices and experts have much to learn from each other, and the more we can be open in our communication about this two-way street, the better.

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  2. Owen

    Nice post, Jean.

    I liked your baking analogy very much. Measuring is a whole thing unto itself. Volumetric vs. weight, liquids vs. dry ingredients, cups and spoons, the metric system, not to mention concepts like a full cup vs. “about” a cup. And then there are the complexities of containers, glass vs. cast iron vs. non-stick vs. porcelain…and then the heat and position in the oven and time and what does it mean to be done? So complex and yet an “expert” can read a recipe and have a decent chance at approximating some kind of anticipated outcome and navigate all of the complexities above like old hat. While, as you say, the novice’s tool bag is empty.

    As I read through your thoughts and insights, I was reminded of a film I’ve seen before. I believe the name was Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was about an elderly man who has made sushi all his life – and still considers himself as having a lot to learn and still trying to improve. This is a concept of “expert” that is as foreign to me as anything. Our cultural definitions of expert and novice can be quite different, can’t they?

    Do you think some of us are drawn to education (especially with regard to technology) because it is almost a guarantee that we will experience the perspective of the novice more frequently? Do some fields lend themselves to an accumulation of substantive knowledge more easily, and are others more continually refreshed?

    I agree with your statements, “In turn the novice must be aware that sometimes ‘figuring it out’ is part of the learning process. When I experience the novice role again it helps me consider how to communicate better with my own students.” These are basic realizations and strike at the core of the hoped for outcomes of this unit.

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  3. kgebauer

    As stated above your baking analogy was great and your many examples of being in the expert and novice learning spaces were insightful as well. What stuck out to me was this, “As Benander (2009) described, I also learned the “greatest change was increased compassion for my students”. As I read your examples I sensed this was an underlying factor in your teaching and learning style. The compassion factor is a constant reminder of the social and relational aspect of the learning space. The presence or lack of it influences learning outcomes more than many of us realize. Putting ourselves in the student’s shoes is important to do because as you pointed out it helps us show compassion and helps us find any potential “quicksand” spots. Compassion and concern for the student should be a force behind our expert teaching experiences.

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  4. Jenny

    Jean,
    I enjoyed your piece. I think you described one of the most common characteristics of the expert when you said that you typically “exhaust all resources before asking.” It is a challenging, but very important task for the educator to give “students suggestions for fixing formulas without ‘giving it all away’. Helping students learn to problem solve, without creating a level of frustration that causes them to give up, is helping them to develop the expert skill set. The empathy that we feel with our students can certainly help us to refine our lessons so that students are experiencing frustration with the concepts and problems that we want them to and not with aspects of our teaching that could be detracting from what we would like them to learn.

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  5. amattacchione

    Hi Jean:

    Your post reminds me that there is a lot of gray in the world. I was thinking about your cooking experience with your granddaughter. While I agree that we often teach others not from a novice perspective but rather from an experienced and rote perspective, I have to say that your granddaughter is not a complete novice even if she has never set hand to mixing bowl and spoon. She brings much knowledge to the experience of cooking although she will be a novice when it comes to the actual mechanics of cooking a dish. She has much language and understanding of cooking concepts that she has learned by observation of adults cooking, meal time conversation about food and food preparation, nutrition and how meals bring us together to socialize. If she stayed with you the entire time you prepared the food, then that attributes to your attachment to her and her state of readiness to take on the challenge to self-regulation. It would be fun to ask her to show you how to “cook” something to learn what she already knows from her other experiences with food and with the cooking lesson you had with her. Children are often underestimated and overestimated concerning their skills and knowledge. She is very fortunate to have a grandmother like you!

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