Posted by: Stefan Spiess | April 1, 2009

Cognitive perspectives on workplace learning: Knowledge and expertise

by Agathe Jasinski & Christoph Huschka

The topic of expertise is discussed more and more in our civilization. It isn’t easy to define the area of an expert. A simple way of the development into an expert could in our opinion be explained by regarding pupils, teachers and professors. The majority of people believes that every professor is an expert. In order to become a professor you have to absolve a higher school, then you have to specialize in a specific domain. For some people the teacher’s expertise is between that of a pupil and that of a professor. But is this already expertise? We want to show up different aspects, that might help to regard this discussion from different points of view.

One part of achieving expertise is a wide knowledge of problem solving. John R. Anderson (1993) dealt with the canonical conception of problem solving.

In order to have the same understanding of the word ‘problem’, we want to give a short definition. A problem is an obstacle that someone has to overcome in order to achieve a desired goal. Problems refer to a situation, condition, or issue. In summary, a problem exists when an individual becomes aware of a significant difference between the actual situation and the situation that is desired.

As we already know, problems exist as a barrier on the way to expertise. A problem is defined through the problem space. The problem space is the concept of a problem solving state and an operator. A problem solution starts in an initial state of the problem, further on it goes through intermediate states and finally it arrives at a state that matches the goal.

Another key- construct of the problem space are the problem solving operators. These are actions that transform one state into another. What characterizes operators, is the change they produce in the state. Normally a problem solver has an internal representation of the operators, preconditions and effects. Once again: the state and the operators are the concept of a problem space. The difficulty in the problem- solving action, is the search, that means to find a sequence of problem- solving operators.

In our opinion this way of analyzing problems is a very good method, because if we think of problems, the way is just true. For example during studying, you have to write a test, your goal is to get a good grade, but in order to reach this goal, you have to learn, in order to learn you have to get the information about the contents. So you always have different operators.

John R. Anderson (1993) also studied several problem-solving methods. The critical issue in solving a problem is how to select the next operator and the principles used for selecting operators (blind search versus systematic search). The process of problem-solving can progress through changing the problem space. If an operator can be applied, the problem-solving progress moves one step forward. There are several problem-solving methods, and those convert what is learned into performance in order to achieve a goal. For example, people use the simple method of hill climbing: here people select operators that create states similar to the goal state. Another problem- solving method is the ‘means-ends analysis’. The key-features of this analysis are difference reduction and subgoaling. In general one can say that the means-ends analysis is a way of understanding why difference reduction and subgoaling are pervasive in human problem solving. Difference reduction is the tendency of a problem solver to select operators that produce states that are more similar to the goal state. Subgoaling can involve creating many subgoals, but it is difficult to remember these subgoals. Further on, the time you need to make a move to the goal is correlated with the number of subgoals.

Three topic points are most important in the means-ends analysis: you have a focus on eliminating a single large difference, you select operators by what difference they reduce, and finally it is the subgoaling of preconditions. In summary the problem solver searches for operators relevant to remove differences. If the operator can not be applied, the problem solver sets the subgoal of eliminating blocking conditions, and so he or she is no longer working on the original goal, but on a subgoal, that is a means to the ultimate end.

It is not hard to understand that there is a great variability of problem-solving in our knowledge-rich domain. Because of the differences among cognitive models of different people, different paths and individual ways exist to solve a problem. Problem-solving is even an cognitive activity. Sometimes even higher level cognition is a problem- solving process; that’s how problem-solving provides a bridge between learning and performance. Problem-solving methods even provide mechanisms for converting knowledge into behavior. A significant observation is, that it is not possible to achieve a high level of performance without a great investment of time – experts mostly agree upon a time of ten years, in which you can achieve the masters’ level. But you can see a difference between routine and real problem-solvers: it is the amount of search involved in the process. Because of becoming familiar with a problem, we learn which operators apply without having to search. Finally it is interesting to know that the best effect of increased practice of a particular skill is that it is performed more quickly and also more accurately.

Another part of the topic ‘knowledge and expertise’ is the way of becoming an expert. Dreyfus and Dreyfus developed the way of acquiring skills in five steps. These steps are: novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency and expertise.

But again we want to make sure to have the same understanding of the word ‘expertise’. This phrase is defined by the attributes efficiency, accuracy, knowledge and experience. It explains exceptional skills to solve problems; that means a special performance in a particular domain, which goes along with a broad experience. The knowledge or the skills of an expert and the condition of being an expert is also called expertise.

The first step on the way to reach expertise is the novice, the absolute beginner. During this time the acquisition of knowledge through instruction is superficial. That means that someone learns rules to manage acts. In this stadium a person is learning rules without a context (that is context-free), because the newly learned elements are seen objective.

The second step is the stadium of the advanced beginner. For this part it is necessary to already have great experiences in handling a situation. The best chance here is the self- made experience in a concrete situation. Own experience is always more useful and reasonable than an experience where you are just an observer. In this second stadium the experience already becomes expert knowledge, but you are still aware of the concrete situation in which you have gathered the specific experience.

The third stadium on the way to expertise is called Competence. Now the person has to choose between different decision- procedures, because he or she already has had a lot of experience. Now also the intuition is more and more important. From now on, the person has a certain routine and feels responsible for the results of the act he or she does. It is easy to understand that now even emotional factors play a significant role.

If you are in the fourth stadium, you have the proficiency. Now a procedure simply happens, basically because of remembering a similar situation in the past – that is what we call learning. From now on, this memory activates plans and acts, which operated similar in the past. The intuition is now superior.

The final step actually is the expertise. A person that has taken all steps of the way can assert that he or she is an expert. The skills of an expert are part of his person; it is no longer necessary to be aware of them. So it is no longer problem- solving, but actually a critical observation of the own intuition (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986).

It is hard to really accept this explanation, because we think that people are so individual, that you cannot generalize that everybody gains expertise in these five steps. For me, also talents or capability play an important role, which aren’t mentioned here. Of course there might be many people who become experts this way, but in order to handle this complex topic from several points of view, it’s not enough.

Further on there is a lot of theories about expertise. We decided to inform about the following aspects.
It’s a long way from novice to expert. In rather unstructured workplaces it is also hard to find out if people gained expertise. Even practice time is not the only factor that defines the levels of expertise and experience (Lichtenberg 1997).

Strasser and Gruber (2004) wrote about differences in behaviour and knowledge of novices and experts in the unstructured workplace of psychological counselors.

Beginners feel rather unsafe and uncomfortable with their professional role. They have difficulties in using their theoretical and methodical knowledge. “During counselling, beginners are primaly concerned with themselves and therefore pay little attention to the information clients present. They stick to “safe” interventions, which are rather simple and well established. With increasing experience, counsellors are able to supervise their own counselling activities more critical.” They evaluate their own behaviour, especially about functionality and effectiveness instead of methodical exactness. Therefore the theoretical orientation becomes less important, and experts have more options for action. They select clinical tools and intervention strategies from different approaches. Also the quality of argumentation increases with experience. “Professionals show superior performance if the client’s problems increase in complexity (Gunzelmann, Schiepek, & Reineckerm 1987)”.

On the way to expertise, there are some stations the novice should pass. The first one- and in our opinion the most important one- is reflection. Active and systematic reflection leads to changes in cognitive structures. The next one is that novices should work with a variety of different complex and difficult cases. Supervision is also important and can hold with different degrees: experts serving as model, experts serving as internal supporters, experts serving as external supporters and regular advisors. In addition, experts can help with: informative feedback, story-telling and teaching problem solving-procedures (Strasser/Gruber 2004).

In our opinion it is very important to know how people gain expertise. So one can compare his (or her) own living, his own studying, his own educational work with the way to expertise. It reminds this person of reflecting on his own actions. Reflection is something very easy to do, but often working-teams don’t take the time.
Unfortunately there isn’t enough time and money to help novices to gain professional experience in many jobs. So it depends on the people if they want to perform like professionals or novices.

“Durlak (1979) concluded from a meta analysis on 42 studies that laymen with no or specific training reached at least the same results as professional helpers. However, such effective lay helpers usually received much support and supervision by professional staff.” On the other hand “professionals show superior performance if the clients problems increase in complexity (Gunzelmann, Schiepek, & Reineckerm 1987)” (Strasser/Gruber 2004). It is also unknown whether the tasks were set on a realistic problem and on a high level of difficulty. On low levels everybody can solve problems, but only experts can solve on high levels.

Now you have read a lot about expertise and the aspects that affect experts. In order to get back to our beginning, we still can not give a general and true answer to the question whether professors are experts or not. We decided for ourselves, that expertise is a wide domain, that is not easy to define correct. But looking at professors, it might be true to say that they are experts, but their only expertise refers to a special theoretical domain. Of course during school and additionally during studying you get specific knowledge. But on the other hand you have to specialize on certain aspects and that is why it’s hardly possible to become an “all-around” expert.

More Information?

Some of the following links might not work from campuses other than Regensburg or inside Bavaria due to licensing reasons.

  • The Dynamics of Sensemaking, Knowledge, and Expertise in Collaborative, Boundary-Spanning Design – Susan Gasson (Available online.)
  • Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge – Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice (Available online.)
  • Complex Acts of Knowing paradox and descriptive self-awareness – David Snowden (Available online.)
  • Gains from Trade through Imported Expertise – Markusen, James R. (Available online.)
  • Participation in groupware-mediated communities of practice: a socio-political analysis of knowledge working – N. Hayes and G. Walsham (Available online.)


  • Strasser, J. & Gruber, H. (2004) The role of experience in professional training and development of psychical counsellors. In H.P.A. Boshuizen, R. Bromme & H. Gruber (Eds.), Professional learning: Gaps and transitions on the way from novice to expert . Dordrecht: Kluwer
  • Anderson, J. R. (1993). Problem solving and learning. American Psychologist, 48
  • Dreyfus, H. L. & Dreyfus, S. E. (1986). Mind over machine: The power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell


  1. In your article it was good that you defined the used terms and for example talked about what attributes define an expert.
    I also agree when at the end you say it is “hardly possibly to become an ´all-around´ expert”. The problem however is that most people nonetheless think you automatically become an expert in many areas when you for example have a doctoral degree in another area that has nothing to do with the ones you are talking about. Therefore the term expert in everyday life is a very problematic one as it is applied to many persons who in this specific context should not be called experts.
    It was nice to link all these articles and at least here in Turku it was possible to open all of them. Thank you, that encouraged to take a look at them and read through the literature.

  2. Besides problem solving and becoming an expert I think that the type of the knowledge the expert uses is interesting. The base of expertise is formal knowledge but what distinguishes expert from novice is tacit knowledge which is important in problem solving.

    The question of who is an expert is hard to answer as you said. I’d say that professor is an expert and so is teacher. Päivi Tynjälä has written about teacher’s expertise but I can’t find the original article. Tynjälä thinks that teacher’s formal knowledge consists of knowledge about subject and pedagogical knowledge. Tacit knowledge forms through experience.

  3. Your artile has clear argument on what is expertise with relevant theories on expertise, which is very good.

    As Sija pointed out, the expertise of teachers is difficult and problematic one becuase the meaning of the expertise changes according to the social change.

    For example, now ‘generalist’ view of teachers is seen as more important than ‘expert’ in Japan. The teachers should be able to deal with almost everything ranging from their knowledge in school subjects, the teaching methods to the knowledge in child rearing and even school management.

    This generalist view of teachers’ expertise has been very problematic in Japan, drifting the values of each domain of expertise. IN this sense, as Holst sited this sentence, “hardly possibly to become an ´all-around´ expert”, seems to have a relevant remark.

    I totaly agree with Saija’s comment that “what distinguishes expert from novice is tacit knowledge which is important in problem solving”. But at the same time, due to this tacit knowledge which experts have accumulated, they may not be good at explaing their knowledge to others sometimes. They may be good at doing something for them, but not necessarily be good at teaching to others in some domains of expertise. For example, my music teacher was not at all good at explaing how to acquire specific skills. She just showed how she is doing (i,e, learning by observing) and did not explain in detail how to move fingers. She mya be talented in the music and did not take much care about how to acquire skills because she was able to acqurie skills without consciousness.

    in this sense, which experts are concerned seems to be of crucial for invesitigating this topic? maybe?

  4. Hi there, always i used to check blog posts here in the early hours in
    the daylight, for the reason that i love to gain knowledge of more and more.

  5. So funny! (And true!)

  6. Lemon is alkaline forming. Try Google next time .

  7. I think that everything wrote was actually very
    logical. However, think on this, suppose you were to write
    a killer post title? I ain’t saying your content is not solid., however suppose you added a headline that makes people desire more?
    I mean Cognitive perspectives on workplace learning:
    Knowledge and expertise | Studying Workplace Learning is kinda vanilla.

    You should peek at Yahoo’s front page and see how
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