Expertise and the organization of knowledge: Unexpected differences among genetic counselors, faculty, and students on problem categorization tasks



Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser (1981) observed that experts (physics faculty) organized problems into groups according to the underlying physics law or principle applicable, whereas the groupings of novice physics students focused on objects, literal physics terms, and physical configurations in the problems. Replication of these findings in a number of similar studies has led to the general acceptance of the proposition that the mental schemes used by experts to organize information within a content domain are organized according to the “deep structure” of the domain, whereas the schemes of novices are bound by “surface” dimensions.

Categorizations of genetics problems produced by genetics counselor and faculty experts in comparison to student novices obtained in the present study, however, are inconsistent with a deep structure/surface structure dichotomy. As expected, faculty experts focused almost exclusively on conceptual principles, but student sorts focused primarily on problem knowns and unknowns. The expert counselor sortings unexpectedly resembled those of the students in this regard. Counselors also emphasized solution techniques to be used, whereas students emphasized the verbatim wording of the problem statement. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that as expertise is attained, a person restructures his/her knowledge of the domain into a framework that is based on critical dimensions that facilitate the daily use of that knowledge. Implications for theoreticians, researchers, and teachers are drawn. Whenever possible, future studies of expertise should include noneducator experts; teachers should help students develop the ability to construct and reconstruct the organizational frameworks of their knowledge so as to facilitate the effective use of that knowledge in the face of change.