Cognitive Psychology: Expertise Development

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

Research into expertise attempts to understand the relation between expert knowledge and exceptional performance in terms of cognitive structures and processes. The fundamental research is targeted at understanding how expert knowledge is acquired or honed, to describe what it is that experts know, and how they use their knowledge to achieve performance that most people assume requires extreme or extraordinary ability.

The development of expertise has implications beyond pure human cognitive psychology, “expert systems” are an integral part of the Artificial Intelligence field.

Stages of Acquisition

Skill learning occurs in three stages:

  1. Cognitive stage which is where the description of a procedure is learned.
  2. The associative stage is where the method of preforming the skill is learned.
  3. An autonomous stage which is where the skill becomes more and more rapid and automatic.


Time to perform a task speeds up based on the amount of practice an individual has. However, after a certain amount of practice the benefit of practice diminishes per the time involved. There are a number of other factors that change the effects of practice. They include that spacing of practice increases learning, skills can be learned better if independent parts are taught separately, people learn faster if they are given immediate feedback.


Proceduralization is the name of the process by which people convert their declarative, factual knowledge of a specific area into a more efficient procedural representation. If an individual is learning to drive a car he/she must learn the procedure. One must memorize where the gears are and for what they are used. The correct sequence must be memorized, rehearsed and a skill is learned. The skill is then practiced until it becomes automatic.

Tactical Learning

Tactical learning is the improvement that comes because people learn familiar sub-sequences of problem-solving steps that appear in multiple problems. To use the driving metaphor, if the shifting sequence is learned and becomes automatic then a sub sequence is learned when the individual needs to go in reverse or parallel park. That too is rehearsed and becomes part of the skill.

Strategic Learning

This is the improvement that comes because people learn the optimal way to organize their problem solving for a specific area of knowledge. This has to do with how an individual organizes material so it can be recalled for problem solving. A novice may solve a problem by working backward because they have no expertise, process, or skill. An expert starts with quantities that can be directly computed, such as gravitational force and then works toward the desired velocity.

Abstraction of Features

Problem solving improves in a specific area of knowledge because the solver learns how to represent problems in abstract terms rather than surface-level terms. Abstract representation facilitates the problem solving. Problems that are completely different on the surface are seen as similar based on previous exposure.

Problem Memory

As people become experts in a field, their memory for problems and for past problem solving patterns improve so their knowledge base for problem solving increases. People that are experts seem to display special enhanced memory for information about problems in their area of expertise. They tend to remember not in individual pieces but in patterns.  These patterns seem to be stored in long term memory giving them more space in the working memory to hold information. So, as people become expert in a field their memory for problems involves two areas. They learn the patterns that appear in these problems and because they have committed to memory prominent patters in a problem, they can assimilate more detail of a current problem in working memory.

Transfer of Skills

A decreasing number of educational psychologists subscribe to what is called the Doctrine of Formal Discipline which said that studying general subjects such as Latin, or geometry was of significant value because it served to discipline the mind. That is why many of your general education classes were required. However, Thorndike’s research has challenged that view. He found the mind was not composed of general faculties but rather of specific habits and associations, which provided a person with a variety of narrow responses to very specific stimuli. He found there was no transfer of knowing between diverse skills only between two skills that have the same logical structure. He also found there was no negative transfer between skills. So learning a new skill does not damage what you know in another field.


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Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.