Learner Expertise Differences

Many student cohorts contain learners with widely differing levels of prior knowledge, skills and experience. The course structure and learning resources should cater for the different levels of expertise.

Instructional design catering for less knowledgeable learners should:

·         ensure information is coherent for low knowledge students

·         provide access to hints for completing learning activities

·         avoid interrupting students mid-task

·         provide options to access remedial information.

Instructional design catering for more knowledgeable learners should:

·         eliminate redundant content

·         enable fast-tracking

·         provide "challenge tasks" to extend learning activities

·         provide options to access advanced information.

These recommendations flow from the expertise reversal effect which is central to cognitive load theory.

The expertise reversal effect occurs when instructional designs that assist novice learners reduce the learning attained by higher knowledge students.

Expertise reversal effects have been demonstrated on each of the effects generated by reducing extraneous cognitive load. Novice learners hold only basic formations of schemas and low levels of automation. These learners benefit from the high levels of cognitive assistance provided through reducing extraneous cognitive load and from the support given to make up for their shortfall in knowledge and skills.

In contrast, learners who are more knowledgeable will be better able to manage processing of new information. For these learners the high level of scaffold given to directing their attention and assisting their processing of new information reduces their cognitive flexability with respect to how they would otherwise manage their attention and processing activities.

By way of an analogy, a person competent at riding a bicycle who is forced to use training wheels will likely find them to impede their normal capacity for bike riding. This is especially true in the more complex task of cornering where one needs to lean into the corner. Trainng wheels will present a risk of causing the rider to topple, rather than being supportive.

Cognitive load theory explains differing impacts of cognitive load instructional design manipulations in accordance with the level of the learners level of expertise in the content domains. Instructional designs which are beneficial to novices become less effective for slightly more knowledgeable learners. The beneficial effects disappear for middle range knowledgeable leaners and reverse for highly knowledgeable learners.

In summary, instructional materials should be designed to cater for learners with ‘lower’ levels of prior knowledge, and also those with ‘higher’ levels of prior knowledge.


Next: General Factors



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