Expertise and

Knowledge Transfer

funny expert picture
I want to be an EXPERT!
(link to source)

So you want to be an expert, eh?

One of the most important facets of expertise is automation. The idea that certain tasks or ways of thinking become so automatic, that you free up working memory for other tasks thus allowing for greater efficiency (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000). But this automation has its downsides. More scientifically speaking, expertise hinders knowledge transfer as the nature of how that knowledge is organized changes from beginners to experts.

One study by Hinds et. al, (2001) looked exactly at that, whether or not experts were less able to successfully teach novices. Using a electronic test kit which included the components for building a circuit, Hinds et. al recruited experts based on their college education (years, training, etc.) and recruited novices as those students who concentrated in the humanities and had very little or no course work in electricity. The teaching sessions were videotaped and analyzed for methodology and way in which experts were communicating to novices. What they discovered was that experts used more abstract and advanced statements with fewer concrete statements than beginners. In a second study, they found that novices trained by other beginners on average performed better (mean time of completion was lower) than novices trained by expert. (See figure below "Table 3") Chi et. al (1981) showed that experts, indeed, sorted and solve physics problems differently than novices applying more overarching themes (e.g. conservation of energy) than novices that looked more at superficial features.


If the nature of expertise is automation and loss of the inability to verbalize certain more “basic” skills, then how can one learn to be an expert. One possible way that has been posited by Lave and Wenger (1991) is the concept of situated learning or more specifically “legitimate peripheral participants.” Lave et al. (1991) essentially changed the conception of learning as not a mental process but one entrenched in cultural and social context and parameters. Through “apprenticeship”, a beginner can begin to train with a master (“expert”) and learn those skills that are actually carried out in the community of practitioners. Lave and Wenger, looking at tailors, midwifes, alcoholics, and butchers elucidated a possible mechanism by which expertise can be transferred, including automated ones which is then practiced by novice within the apprenticeship.

Field (2004), looking at now one can move from a novice to an expert, evaluated the idea of situated learning within the context of nursing and clinical practice. Field argues that situated learning allows nurses to both teach to and learn from students and allows for repetition in practice which eventually leads to automation (or expertise).

But even if expertise is transferable to a certain extent, “chunking” theory still argues that a significant amount of time is required to build up enough conceptual “chunks” so as to be an expert. Estimates have ranged from 2500 to 100,000 chunks, although the average is 50, 000 chunks which is about the size of a fluent, native speaker of any language (Gobet, 1998).

fMRI of Drill vs. Strategy
Contrasts drill vs. strategy (red) and strategy vs. drill (green); P < 0.001
(Delazer, 2001)

Given that a decade might be require for expertise, is there any way to speed up the process? Mneumonics, as put forth by Bowers (1970) can lead to good memory or as he defined it, organized, efficient, and effective storage, encoding, retention, and retrieval of information. Other studies have been released looking at different encoding strategies. One study, in particular, showed a qualitative difference in brain activation in drill versus strategy learning in solving arithmetic problems. Strategy encoding seem more robust (with few errors) although both lead to faster speed and accuracy. But the fMRI data shows that while RT differences were minimal, there was differential brain activation, with drills activating the left angular gyrus (found to be involved in rehearsal) and the strategies activating the precuneus (involved in more episodic memorial processing and visual memory). (See figure at right)

Regardless of the strategies you use towards becoming an expert in any domain, the outcome will likely be what has emerged from the expertise literature: a greater capacity for encoding more abstract, forward searching, information in a well organized, large knowledge database, and ultimately automation of certain tasks that free up working memory. While such changes make experts less ideal for transferring knowledge, there are ways around this limitation, such as with situated learning.

So now that you know what it means to be an expert, why don’t you try it for yourself!

Becoming an expert: Mnemonics!

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