The Expertise Reversal Effect
Learning can only happen when students understand enough of a problem or situation that they can productively seek a goal. There should be gaps in what they know about the path from where they are to their desired solution, but they need to be able to form plans for addressing those gaps. Students must test those plans and then reflect on their efficacy so that they can make better attempts in the future. The expertise reversal effect lies in deciding how much context and instruction teachers should provide before allowing students to seek solutions.
When teachers are just beginning to use inquiry techniques, they often find themselves in situations where the students don’t have enough context to make good plans. They don’t understand the intended outcome or the constraints on their agency. A dangerous response from teachers is to overcompensate and provide detailed structure and guidance so that students don’t feel overwhelmed. “Some students will learn how our experiments are intended to work, they will come to see the pattern in how our creative writing assignments are designed… but in an abundance of caution, it can be tempting to give lengthy instructions. Just in case.”
Expertise Reversal Means We’re Doing More Harm than Good
Students begin building bigger and bigger chunks in their schema as they obtain more practice with content and skills. A chunk is a block of information that is recalled as a single unit during memory retrieval. An analogy is shooting a basketball free throw. When you teach a young child to shoot a free throw you will talk about bending your knees, using calm and smooth motion, and repeating a consistent procedure each shot. The child will think about each issue and gradually improve.
Intuitively, you would not give the same instructions to a collegiate player. You’d differentiate (and you should). If you actually reminded them to bend their knees while practicing, they’d get worse! They think about shooting free throws as a big unit, and all those granular details exist as a single “bit” in their memory. That leaves most of their cognitive resources available to work other parts of the problem. When we draw attention to those details within the chunk, we break it. Now the same information consumes more of the players working memory. And it gets worse.
Expertise Reversal Increases With Experience
The expertise reversal effect goes beyond chunk breaking and refers to the basketball player comparing what you say about bending their knees to all the previous coaching they’ve received on knee-bending. “Is what I’m hearing now the same as what I already know? I’ve heard a lot of information on how to bend my knees and this is kind of weird… is it the same? It’s close, so I guess it’s fine. Now, what else what I doing?”
Because experts have a deeper well of experience, it takes them longer to compare the redundant information with their past experience. That means the more expertise they have, the greater the drag on their cognitive resources the instruction will be. Here’s a quote from the topic paper that encapsulates the idea in academic terms:
“[E]xtraneous (unproductive, irrelevant) cognitive load is associated with a diversion of cognitive resources on activities irrelevant to learning goals because of design-related factors, such as a poor presentation design, inappropriate selection and sequencing of learning tasks, or inadequate instructional support. The expertise reversal effect is associated with two types of situations that cause extraneous cognitive load: 1) insufficient external guidance that does not compensate for limited knowledge base and forces novice learners to search for answers using cognitively inefficient procedures; 2) expert learner knowledge base overlaps with provided external guidance thus forcing learners to waste limited resources on co-referring internal and external representations of the same information. Both these forms of extraneous cognitive load can leave inadequate resources to sustain essential processing.”
Expertise Reversal Adds More Importance to Just-In-Time Learning
The “should” from this paper is that teachers must continue to turn more control of the class work over to students as courses progress. Repeating instructions with the same level of detail all year will hold students back. You will prevent students from chunking those procedures if you answer every possible question before it’s asked. It is far better to omit an instruction and answer the question later, than it is to answer every question up front and give more information than the students need. Let your plans stay flexible and respond to student needs (it’s tricky, but you can do it)
It’s good news! Save your breath, and leave room for your students to grow their expertise.
The research and news we consider on the show follows some particular guidelines. We have a firm rule: the research must be recently published. Sometimes I find papers that really stand out to me, but they aren’t appropriate for use on the air. In order to still be able to share these great pieces, I’ve decided to create a new blog segment called: Papers We Won’t Use On The Air but You Should Still Read Them [working title].