Chase & Simon, 1973 explored the differences between expert and novice thinking in chess players. Although experts and novices have similarly “severe short term memory limits”, experts do show a difference in the ability to encode structures into chunks. Researchers used a “perception task” and a “memory task” to “discover and characterize” these chunks. The data supports the hypothesis that expert players can code structures into larger perceptual chunks.
Chi et al., 1981 explored the differences between expert and novice thinking in physics problem solving. They used several procedures to explore this question; subjects first sorted a number of physics problems into different self described categories, and described a basic approach they would use to solve the problems. The study showed that experts processed problems at a deeper level; not only did they take more time to sort the problems, but they found more underlying similarities among problems. Experts used basic physics principles to sort problems whereas novices relied heavily on surface features to sort problems.
Taken together, these studies show that experts are better at seeing the “big picture” – they appear to have formed larger and fewer schemas so that more connections can be made between seemingly disparate subjects. In contrast, novices appear to focus more on details and fail to perceive the underlying principles of problems. Interestingly, there are several classroom activities that encourage novices to think like experts. For example, concept maps can help students make connections between a certain topic and a “big idea” such as the conservation of energy. A “card sort” is another activity in which students sort ideas into larger categories according to larger principles. It remains to be seen whether it is possible to speed up or even skip the transition from novice to expert thinking. If it were possible to skip the transition, would it be desirable?