# 12.1.4: How do Experts Solve Problems?

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With the term expert we describe someone who devotes large amounts of his or her time and energy to one specific field of interest in which he, subsequently, reaches a certain level of mastery. It should not be of surprise that experts tend to be better in solving problems in their field than novices (people who are beginners or not as well trained in a field as experts) are. They are faster in coming up with solutions and have a higher success rate of right solutions. But what is the difference between the way experts and non-experts solve problems? Research on the nature of expertise has come up with the following conclusions:

Experts know more about their field,
their knowledge is organised differently, and
they spend more time analysing the problem.

When it comes to problems that are situated outside the experts' field, their performance often does not differ from that of novices.

Knowledge: An experiment by Chase and Simon (1973a, b) dealt with the question how well experts and novices are able to reproduce positions of chess pieces on chessboards when these are presented to them only briefly. The results showed that experts were far better in reproducing actual game positions, but that their performance was comparable with that of novices when the chess pieces were arranged randomly on the board. Chase and Simon concluded that the superior performance on actual game positions was due to the ability to recognise familiar patterns: A chess expert has up to 50,000 patterns stored in his memory. In comparison, a good player might know about 1,000 patterns by heart and a novice only few to none at all. This very detailed knowledge is of crucial help when an expert is confronted with a new problem in his field. Still, it is not pure size of knowledge that makes an expert more successful. Experts also organise their knowledge quite differently from novices.

Organisation: In 1982 M. Chi and her co-workers took a set of 24 physics problems and presented them to a group of physics professors as well as to a group of students with only one semester of physics. The task was to group the problems based on their similarities. As it turned out the students tended to group the problems based on their surface structure (similarities of objects used in the problem, e.g. on sketches illustrating the problem), whereas the professors used their deep structure (the general physical principles that underlay the problems) as criteria. By recognising the actual structure of a problem experts are able to connect the given task to the relevant knowledge they already have (e.g. another problem they solved earlier which required the same strategy).

Analysis: Experts often spend more time analysing a problem before actually trying to solve it. This way of approaching a problem may often result in what appears to be a slow start, but in the long run this strategy is much more effective. A novice, on the other hand, might start working on the problem right away, but often has to realise that he reaches dead ends as he chose a wrong path in the very beginning.

12.1.4: How do Experts Solve Problems? is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.