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How Much Do Students Have To Know?

The graduate students in my teaching seminar were excited by the concept of “backward design” in constructing syllabi but also concerned about whether they needed to explain the concept to their undergraduate students. They asked, “how much do students need to know about why an instructor chose a specific path for course? If we describe the overall trajectory of a course, do we have to do that for every unit? Do we have to explain our lesson plans for every day we meet?” They had seen their own undergraduate instructors talking about course structures and lesson plans as if they were playing a game with the students called “I’ve got a secret.” They had kept students in the dark until the last possible moment, when all was revealed.

As I reflected on this dilemma, I thought back to an issue that we previously discussed as an impediment to student learning: the curse of expertise. “The curse of expertise” is a classic problem someone faces in trying to explain something to another person who is much less knowledgeable about a subject. Where to begin? The person doing the explaining not only needs a plan for what to tell the novice but also for what to leave out. Because novices may have little substantive knowledge about the phenomenon, they don’t know where the expert is going next and whether they are getting closer to the goal of learning the new concept or principle.

The curse of expertise is rooted in the way that experts develop their store of accumulated knowledge. Eventually, much of it is implicit, consisting of hidden assumptions, taken for granted principles, and buried knowledge of the paths not to be taken because they don’t work. Such expertise was won through years of experience and they have forgotten the difficulties on the road to their current privileged status. The curse causes experts to move too quickly through foundational knowledge so that they can get to their strengths – – state-of-the-art knowledge of the field. But their students were not on that long journey and so they missed out on the intermediate steps leading up to expert status. Consequently, experts often have a hard time teaching novices, especially in introductory courses. They find it hard to put aside all they have learned and put themselves in the position of someone starting afresh in their field. But what if they were forced to look back on the route they had taken?

The concept of backward design in syllabus construction as well as in course design more generally calls our attention, as experts, to the need for conscious reflection on why we are doing what we are doing. Although it is impossible for experts to purge themselves of their expert knowledge, it is feasible to ask them to start at the end of the journey, with course goals, and then be analytical about how those goals can be achieved. I suggest that the issue be framed as one of building transparent structures whose purposes can be explained to students as enabling them to achieve course goals. The course goals, in turn, need to be stated as things that students will be able to do, rather than as abstract lists of facts, concepts, and theories. Stating goals as things students will be able to do enables them to see for themselves whether they are making progress and gives experts an external indictor of whether they are being understood.

To be clear: the reason for asking instructors to reveal the structural principles of the course is that it explicitly acknowledges the role that students’ comprehension of the design will play in their performance. The principle of revealing the intentions behind the elements of course design extends to daily lesson plans and assignments, as well as the overall structure of the course. For example, when students ask, “why are we doing this reading,” the answer will have to do with how the reading relates to the explicit goals for the day, such as providing a context-rich example permitting structured discussion. The instructor will have already shared with the students the benefits of such discussions orally, on the syllabus, or both. When students ask “why did you put us into cooperative learning groups,” the answer will involve the instructor reminding students of the theory of learning underlying the structure of the course and how group work is an application based on that theory.

The curse of expertise can be overcome when experts are willing to pull back from focusing solely on final destinations.  Instead, they need to consider the many steps required to complete the journey. By working through a design that transparently reveals to students why each stage of the process has been chosen, it becomes easier for experts to recognize the extent to which they have overlooked the implicit knowledge underpinning their expertise. Moreover, considering how to reconstruct that knowledge and make it explicit to students can be a rewarding activity, as it may remind instructors of how much they enjoyed developing their expertise.