Novice versus Expert Learning

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010
How People Learn

An expert is not just someone who knows a great deal about a discipline. It's also someone who understands how a discipline is organized, as well as the language and methodology of the discipline. Experts' thinking is organized around what Bransford et al (1999) call "big ideas," or central concepts in the field. For economists, these are the so-called 'principles' of economics.
This suggests an important difference between the way novices and experts learn. All people learn by building on what they already know. As Crowe & Youga (1986, 218) put it: "Research in cognitive development has demonstrated that learning is the process of making connections, linking what the student already knows to the new information presented."
The problem for novices is not just that they don't know very much about a discipline, but more importantly that they that don't understand how the discipline is organized. Thus when novices learn, they see the new information as more or less random data points. By contrast, when experts learn, they immediately categorize the new information and plug it into the appropriate part of their mental model of the discipline. For novices, learning new information is like juggling, while for experts, it's like placing new information on the appropriate shelf, where it's much less likely to be dropped.
Writing provides one tool for teaching students to learn more like experts. Wight (1999, 22) notes that "writing is usefully carried out in economics courses to reinforce the learning of core theories or concepts." But thoughtful writing assignments help students explore and learn how to use the concepts in ways that go beyond rote learning, in ways that mimic how experts learn. Such assignments help students draw connections and identify relationships, which ultimately enable students to build the mental framework necessary for understanding economic concepts more broadly.
Consider three possible homework tasks:
  1. The first task asks students to select the correct definition of an economic concept from a list of multiple choices. You might find a task like this in a textbook study guide.
  2. The second task asks students to write a brief definition of the concept in their own words.
  3. The third asks students to devise and explain in writing an application of the concept in the real world, where the write-up shows a clear understanding of what the concept means.
All three tasks attempt to get students to think about the definition of the economic concept, but the first task is more of an assessment than a learning tool. The second task asks students to create the definition, which is a higher order task than identification. The last task produces the highest level of learning since it requires students to apply the concept to a context that makes sense to them similar to the way that a disciplinary practitioner would.