Are you an Expert or a Novice at Learning?

The first step in determining your learning expertise level is to establish – what is learning?  Many people tend to know when they have learned something, but they can’t often articulate the process of learning itself.

By definition, learning is: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught (

In previous eras, and even those of today, people associated learning with how much information a person could articulate.  The more that person could tell you about a topic or subject, the more that person had ‘learned’.  However, in an era where inanimate objects possess the power to articulate more information than a human ever could, the term learning takes on a new meaning.

As noted by the National Research Council in, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2000), “the meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it (Simon, 1996)” (p. 5).  Though the term ‘knowing’ is used here, I think the point is still valid in relation to learning.  A person is not learning when they can repeat information (quite frankly, any infant, parrot or machine can do that), rather people are considered learning when they can use that information they are articulating within a particular context.

Learning is a verb, knowing is a noun; thusly, learning is a process.

The National Research Council, makes this statement: “in the most general sense, the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe (e.g., Cobb, 1994; Piaget, 1952, 1973a,b,1977, 1978, Vygotsky, 1962, 1978)” (p. 10).

Knowing – the noun – is the information people already know and believe, whereas learning – the verb – is the process of using what you already know to develop an understanding of new content.

When it comes to this process of learning, there are two generally accepted groups of people: novices and experts.  While we typically use these terms to describe how much a person knows, in this context these terms are used to describe the knowledge acquisition process (aka learning).  You are either a novice learner, or an expert learner, but note: you are not holistically one or the other, your learner status depends on the context.

There are six main distinctions between the learning processes of experts and novices.  All of these distinctions may be found HERE

What these six distinctions illustrate, is that the process of learning is different if you are a novice versus an expert.  What these classifications do not mean, however, is that experts are smarter than novices.


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Novices fail to see patterns that experts see – that does not make them any less intelligent than the expert.  A common example used to illustrate this feature is the game of chess: an expert chess player can see and anticipate the moves of each piece because they have learned to recognized patterns on the board – novices do not have this capability.

Novices posses factual knowledge in insolation, while experts use knowledge in context. One reason for this distinction is that experts have “conditionalized” their knowledge, while novices have not – “it includes a specification of the contexts in which it is useful” (National Research Council, 43).

Novices lack the ability to conditionalize factual knowledge because that knowledge is not activated in context.  This is a fundamental difference in the learning process of novices and experts.  Novices have filing cabinets of individual note cards – each containing one fact – while experts have a paper chain connecting facts to one another.

At this point you may be asking yourself – So what? Why does this matter?


“With knowledge of how people learn, teachers can choose more purposefully among techniques to accomplish specific goals” (National Research Council, 22). Photo credit: How People Learn, page 22.

It is important to know and understand what learning is and the different types of learning processes individuals may posses.  These differences not only affect the way students articulate their learning, but also how learning should be approached by teachers. “For example, it would be a mistake simply to expose novices to expert models and assume that the novices will learn effectively; what they will learn depends on how much they know already” (National Research Council, 50).

You cannot build a bridge, without first having a road.  You cannot ask a student to activate prior knowledge in the connection to a new concept if that prior knowledge does not exist. Learning processes will determine how a person absorbs content and applies it for understanding.

To read more about learning and learning processes, check out How People Learn HERE.


Crombie, S. (Producer). (2014, May 26). 21st Century Learning. Online video retrieved from

National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000. doi:10.17226/9853


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