Differences Between Novices' and Experts' Solving Ill-Structured Problems


  • Eileen Sarsfield Ph.D., P.H.C.N.S.-B.C.

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Nursing, Malek School of Health Professions, Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia
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The purpose of this study was to describe differences in the cognitive processes of novice and expert public health nurses (PHNs) as they solved ill-structured problems commonly found in public health practice.

Design and Sample

This descriptive/exploratory small group design used the think-aloud method, a qualitative technique of collecting verbal data about cognitive processes. Data were coded and analyzed using theoretical thematic analysis. The purposive sample consisted of 12 registered nurses: six novices and six experts.


Participants were asked to think-aloud as they solved two ill-structured public health problems (underage drinking and obesity).


Findings indicated that novice and expert PHNs solve ill-structured problems differently. Experts used cognitive strategies, such as conversion, to propel the problem-solving process forward, forming complex, detailed problem representations and solutions. Novices asked questions as a strategy in defining the problem and developed broad, superficial problem representations and solutions.


This study suggests the need for the development of strategies in the workplace and in academia that support PHNs in identifying and solving ill-structured problems as they transition from novice to expert.