Dec 4

How do you become an expert?

What separates experts from novices, and how do you become one? Our mission is to help people to become experts in applying behavioral science so this is something we have spent a lot of time thinking about.

Expertise is best understood as a continuum from novice to expert with varying levels of fluency in the skill or knowledge, and it’s usually specific to a field. A key characteristic of experts is that they have well-organized knowledge that is grounded in a field’s foundational concepts and oriented towards supporting understanding as well as recalling facts.

Because their knowledge is organized in conditional relationships and patterns that they can recognize, they also find it easier to recall relevant knowledge. When it comes to a novice, they lack this fluency in recognizing patterns and problem-solving strategies which makes it harder to add new knowledge to what they already know

The challenges of developing expertise

If we are aware of these challenges, we are better placed to help people develop their knowledge into expertise efficiently and effectively.

The biggest challenge is that developing knowledge largely depends on what you already know and what you are learning. A common challenge for non-experts is retaining new information when you struggle to relate to your existing knowledge structures. For example, it is much easier to learn Spanish or Italian if you already speak French because you can relate new grammatical rules to ones you have already learned.

It is especially hard to see e.g. patterns between fundamental principles in a field which often leads learners to develop an idiosyncratic combination of theories and concepts that might work in one context (e.g. within a class) but does not transfer well to real life practice. This one of the reasons Behavior Change Society was founded: to facilitate learning from experts with a holistic approach to behavioral insights.

However, it can be difficult to learn from experts because their fluency in the knowledge hides the same strategies that a novice needs to learn! To make things even more challenging, these strategies are often invisible even to the experts themselves because they have become so fluent they are second nature to them.

So, how do we solve this challenge?

  • We make thinking visible.
  • We design our learning activities in a way that allows students to make the processes of their thinking visible as well as the conclusions
  • We model expert thinking by making their strategies and techniques more explicit.
  • We use techniques such as contrasting cases to illustrate specific points, and move from simpler to more complex examples as the learners’ understanding deepens
  • We pay attention to the existing knowledge, skills and beliefs our students bring to the learning environment with intake assessments for each course.
  • We are clear about the learning goals for each course and create strong foundational structures to build future learning on.
  • Our courses provide frequent formal and informal opportunities for feedback that is focused on understanding, not memorization so that we support and reward meaningful learning, and give students opportunities to improve the quality of their thinking and understanding.

These principles help us design impactful learning experiences that help our students stretch their knowledge and leave with the skills they can immediately apply in their everyday work life.
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