Science of Learning 101: 5 L&D Practices for Growing Expertise

Thursday, May 12, 2016

In a recent post, I described the progression of expertise from beginner to expert, and some normal characteristics of work performance at each stage. For example, competent safety analysts are able to assess a typical situation and make recommendations, but they may lack some speed when a situation is more complicated or may become bewildered in very complex or chaotic situations. The expert safety analyst, however, has deep knowledge and experience that comes from extensive practice and is better able to solve chaotic and complex problems. That is why you often hear the phrase, “We called in the expert…” in more complex situations. It’s not that competent analysts are flawed, they just haven’t moved to higher levels of expertise yet.

Because the differences in performance between novice, competent, proficient, and expert workers can be significant, we want to be able to move people toward greater expertise—so they can do more for their team and their organization. This raises the question: What impact does this have on L&D practitioners? It means that L&D is not primarily in the content development business but the people development business.

Let’s review some evidence-backed practices that L&D practitioners should take on to grow expertise in their organizations. By understanding the science around development and maintenance of expertise, L&D leaders and practitioners can move their practice toward strategies that directly affect work outcomes. That is, they grow expertise so that people can perform at higher levels. Here are some of those practices:

Understand the Work

Our job is to help employees “do the work.” But many L&D practitioners don’t deeply understand the work performed by the people they are trying to support. If they don’t understand the work of others, it’s much harder to support the practices that will build their expertise. We cannot turn subject matter expert content into e-learning content and call it a day, no matter how nice it looks.

Help People Use Information During Training Like They Do During Work

It is through mental effort and application that people learn to do the work. Expertise isn’t gained by performing drag-and-drop exercises or finding words in a crossword puzzle. In other words, activities in training should primarily mirror activities at work. Thalheimer has an excellent discussion of how training activities should mirror work activities; here is my summary and analysis of his points.

  • Use learning situations that are similar to work/performance situations. Realistic practice, scenario questions, and simulations are ideal learning circumstances. If they are learning how to make certain types of decisions in training, have them practice making them, not recalling things about them. Realistic feedback that is like it is at work is needed, too. This makes it easier for them to remember how to do the same work on the job because the situations are alike.
  • Have people find and use information as they do in work/performance-like situations. Find and use information resources in training just like they will use it in work and performance situations. For example, if someone needs to use a specific document and fill out a specific form to handle a complaint, have them use that document and fill out that form while learning how to handle a complaint in the course. This makes it easier for them to remember on the job because the situations are alike.

Don’t Train Novices and Experts the Same Way

The “expertise reversal effect" tells us that instructional techniques work very differently on learners with differing levels of prior knowledge. L&D needs to adapt instructional design methods as learners acquire more knowledge. For example, we need to provide more guidance for novices, but as people become more expert, heavy guidance may have a negative impact.

Support Practice

One of the elements that seems to be missing from a lot of training is practice. It’s not efficient if people can’t do their job, don’t understand, or are only marginally competent. Take a look at Figure 1 from the March 2016 Science of Learning 101 post article and see the different between different levels of expertise. Are lower levels of expertise efficient?

And while you’re there, read about how much practice is needed. How will you ensure people get enough practice? All practice doesn’t have to happen in formal training. How can we work with mentors and others on the job so people can practice? If we are in the people development business, our job doesn’t end in class.

Support All Dimensions of Expertise Building

In an article in the International Journal of Lifelong Education, Yielder provided an extensive model of what professional expertise looks like and within the model. She lists five dimensions of expertise:

  1. A knowledge base (breadth and depth of knowledge in their specific area(s))
  2. Cognitive processes (information attainment, reasoning, problem solving, perceptual capabilities,)
  3. Internal processes (awareness, comfort level, flexibility, adaptability, ethics)
  4. Interpersonal relationships (involvement, connections, teamwork, conflict ability, communication skills)
  5. Professional practice (skills, standards, efficiency)

As L&D leaders and practitioners, we tend to do more work in some of these areas (often #1 and #5) and very little in the others. Yet expertise requires all of these areas. Even higher education within a domain often doesn’t attempt to prepare people within the breadth of these areas.

I’d love your opinion and insights about L&D’s role in growing expertise. Please reply below or contact me or ATD Science of Learning on Twitter (@pattishank @atdscilearn). Let’s start a conversation.


Dunphy, B.C., and S.L. Williamson. (2004). In pursuit of expertise. Toward an educational model for expertise development. Advances in Health Sciences Education, (9)2, 107-127.

Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38, 23-31.

Kinchin, I. M. & Cabot, L. B. (2010) Reconsidering the dimensions of expertise: from linear stages towards dual processing. London Review of Education, (8)2, 153 — 166. 

Thalheimer, W. (2010). How much do people forget? Work-Learning Research, Inc.

Yielder, J. (2004). An integrated model of professional expertise and its implications for higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 23, 60–80. 

About the Author
Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of The Online Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor for Online Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.
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