You are an expert. That’s why you are creating online courses, right? Because you know more about your topic than others do, and you want to share your knowledge with them. But have you ever stopped to think about how your expertise could be making it harder for you to create effective online courses? It’s true. In fact, research tells us that when it comes to predicting the time it will take a beginner to master a new skill, experts are cursed.
How Long Does It Take To Learn To Use a Cell Phone?
To explain, let’s start by setting the scene:
The year is 1999. Cell phones are a relatively new phenomenon. Apple won’t even be thinking about the first iPhone for another 5 years. Your job is to teach someone who has never used a cell phone how to do some basic tasks, such as saving and erasing a voicemail message. How long do you think it would take for someone to learn do those things, if you gave them detailed instructions and guidance? Now, you know exactly what they need to do, and how. Maybe you can even remember when you were first learning how to use voicemail. Your prediction should be fairly accurate, right?
Pamela Hinds and her team conducted this exact experiment (PDF) at the end of the last millennium. Their findings? Experts are downright awful at predicting how long it will take beginners to do “simple” tasks. In fact, the more expert you are, the more you will underestimate how long it will take a beginner to complete the task. Hinds called this the Curse of Expertise.
The Curse Goes From Bad To Worse
Now, it’s bad enough that the more experienced you get at something, the worse your predictive abilities get. As Hinds herself wrote, this means that “[T]eachers may not be the best estimators of how long it should take students to learn a new topic or skill.” This gets even more complicated in the online environment. In traditional classrooms, you can adjust the pace of your instruction based on the number of blank faces staring back at you. Online, you don’t have that luxury.
And it gets worse.
As part of the study, Hinds tried to improve the accuracy of the experts’ predictions. First, they tried telling the experts to think back to when they were first learning the skill in question. They hoped that by reflecting on how long it had taken them to learn, the experts’ estimates would improve. It didn’t help. Then, they tried giving the experts a list of common challenges that beginners faced. Perhaps by force them to consider these difficulties, the predictions would become more accurate? No dice. In fact, Hinds and her team were unable to find any methods that worked. Experts just can’t ignore what they already know, no matter how hard they try to put themselves in beginners’ shoes.
So where does that leave us, if we can’t even estimate how long it will take students to complete simple tasks?
Cleansing the Curse with Benjamin Bloom
The foolproof method of handling the Curse of Expertise, of course, is to test. Get real students in your course and see how long it takes them to master your methods.
But that’s not always practical. And while gamers know that a friendly cleric is the best way to remove a curse, I don’t know any who specialize in the Curse of Expertise. So, instead, we turn to one of the godfathers of educational psychology, Benjamin Bloom, for inspiration. Bloom’s most famous contribution is a classification system, known as Bloom’s Taxonomy.
This system gives us a framework for categorizing learning objectives by both type and depth. A physical skill like painting requires, for example, a different type of learning than a mental (cognitive) skill like math. Then within the cognitive skill of math, there’s a big difference in depth between reciting times-tables and doing high-level proofs. Over time, educators refined Bloom’s work and today, the ‘levels’ of the cognitive domain are (from lowest to highest):
- Remembering – knowing the facts
- Understanding – being able to explain the meaning of the facts
- Applying – using the facts in different contexts
- Analyzing – breaking something down into its parts
- Evaluating – making judgements about something
- Creating – developing something brand new from disparate parts
Beyond just outlining how we achieve deeper learning, though, Bloom’s Taxonomy also helps address the Curse of Expertise. See, in Hinds’ study, the experts already knew everything that the beginners need to do. In fact, when asked, they broke the process into the same number of steps as beginners. What they weren’t able to do was to intuit how challenging each step would be to learn. Bloom’s Taxonomy helps us to do that.
Find the Hidden Learning, and Abolish the Curse
To see how this works in practice, let’s return to the cellphone example.
The task of saving a voicemail message requires the beginners to follow a multi-step process. This means that the task is at the apply level. The process itself isn’t complicated: Go into your voicemail, hit the key to retrieve the voicemail, listen to the message, and then save it.
But Bloom’s Taxonomy reveals that there is more to mastering this process than just these four steps. In order for a beginner to apply the procedure, they must first remember and understand each piece. (Note: Consider all the levels below the target level. e.g. an ‘evaluate’ level task would have things to remember, understand, apply and analyze.) For example, one must first remember how the phone’s menu system works and understand what each prompt means (and how to activate it). Remembering that the ‘play’ command will play the message is one piece. Understanding that it makes extra menu options available – including the save option – is another. These are just two hidden learning pieces; if you were to go deeper, you’d no doubt find more.
This is how Bloom’s Taxonomy allows us, as experts, to appreciate the true complexities of tasks that seem simple: First, we identify the actual level of mastery we expect our students to achieve. Then, we work backwards through the lower levels of the taxonomy to reveal the hidden learning that our students must overcome. Awareness of the hidden learning naturally leads to increased time estimates. It helps us acknowledge how hard (and complex!) the learning process is, and also counteracts our tendency to underestimate the learning process.
Now It’s Your Turn
If you want to help your students thrive in your course, you can’t afford to just ‘take your chances’ with the Curse of Expertise. To recap, here are five things to keep in mind:
- The fact that you are creating an online course means that you are more expert in your topic than your students.
- Your expertise interferes with your ability to know how or when your students will make progress. This is the Curse of Expertise.
- Trying to ‘remember what it was like when you first learned,’ or ‘thinking about the problems that your students will face’ will not help you overcome this ‘curse.’
- You can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to find the ‘hidden learning’ that your students must go through, before they can do the tasks you set out for them.
- Revise your time estimates once you have a full understanding of the complexities of the learning process.
- Now, it’s your turn. Practice your new-found estimation skills: choose a specific task from one of your courses and use Bloom’s Taxonomy to find the hidden learning. Then leave a comment below, telling me what your time estimate was before you broke it down, and what it is now. I’d love to hear what you come up with!
Breanne Dyck helps business owners master the business of teaching online. Get her exclusive 4-step guide: “Your Perfect Participant: Know What Buyers Want and Need From Your Course” – free for OpenSesame readers.