Reflections from Teaching: When Are Learners Novices No More?

“Novice learners may benefit most from well-guided low-paced instructional procedures, while more knowledgeable learners may benefit more from minimally guided forms of instruction.” -Slava Kalyuga

The Example that Led to Reflection

I never cease to be amazed at the level of knowledge that my teachers keep bringing to the table in my class. Last week we were discussing probability trees, and one student was leading the activity with the following tree (probabilities of drawing a yellow, green or black ball without replacement):Untitled

After the student was finished answering a couple of questions we had about the tree, I posed the challenge “Create a question where the final answer is 2/5.” I asked this question because I wanted them to get more comfortable with conditional probability. For example, the probability that we will draw a black ball, given that the first ball is yellow is 2/5, so P(B|Y) = 2/5.

Much to my surprise, the first answer given was “Determine the probability of drawing a black or green ball, given that the first ball drawn was black.” I had to sit back and try to figure out where this answer was coming from since I had not anticipated it (this is both the joy and challenge of allowing students to lead the discussion)!

Since the events of drawing a black ball and drawing a green ball are mutually exclusive, we can calculate

P(B or G | B) = P(B|B) + P(G|B) = 1/5 + 1/5 = 2/5.

Can you determine the branches used to create this question? After doing some of what Michael Jacobs calls “Maths C.S.I.” I had successfully determined how the student was thinking.

Are All of Our Students Really Novices?

Over the weekend I began pondering about how there is a lot of talk that mathematics students need to be treated like novices, especially in elementary school. For example, in Anna Stokke’s C.D. Howe Report, she states

To be effective, instructional techniques must cater to the limitations of a person’s working memory, which can hold only a limited amount of new information. This is particularly important for novice learners who have difficulty focusing on new concepts when their working memory is overwhelmed.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the statement above – one which is taken from Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, and heavily founded in Cognitive Load Theory – it is important for us as teachers to understand when learners may have limitations, and how to effectively combat these limitations. I do, however, think it is important for us to also reflect on how often we treat our students as novice learners, and realize their potential as non-novice learners. Those who argue in favour of CLT often view their learners as novices, effectively by-passing the expert-reversal effect. Stated briefly, the expert-reversal effect states methods that typically work well to elicit learning in novice learners are not necessarily the best methods to elicit learning in non-novice learners. For example, as one progresses in their knowledge of mathematics, worked examples become less conducive to learning.

In lieu of this thought, I pose some questions:

1) Are all of our students actually novice learners? Is it possible that our students are sometimes non-novices?

2) If we agree that at least some of our students are non-novices, what methods should we utilize to elicit learning in these individuals? Must it still be direct instruction and worked examples?

3) If we believe that our students are novice learners, will we ever see them as non-novice learners? Does this belief we hold affect their learning?



9 responses to “Reflections from Teaching: When Are Learners Novices No More?”

  1. Chester Draws Avatar
    Chester Draws

    I’m guessing that you have massively over-endowed the student who wrote “Determine the probability of drawing a black or green ball, given that the first ball drawn was black.” with an understanding that is not there.

    All he or she has done is work out that if one draws from a group of five rather than six, that getting a result of 2/5 is very easy. Take away a black ball and we have one one green and one black = 2/5.

    Now how to get rid of one pesky black ball? Easy, make sure it is already removed with the phrase “given the first ball drawn was black”.

    There’s no need for complicated conditional thinking at all. The person has used the lowest possible level of thinking about probability.


    1. Bryan Penfound Avatar

      I’m not necessarily so convinced. The result of the question needed to be 2/5 so why not use one of those branches instead (certainly summing 1/5+1/5 is more difficult than immediately seeing using a 2/5)? Using the connector ‘or’ instead of ‘and’ (‘and’ typically refers to addition) adds another layer of difficulty in my opinion. Plus these students likely haven’t seen conditional probability either, so wrangling the language barrier adds another layer of complexity.

      Either way, making an argument as such, you are missing the overall message/heart of the post which is to reflect on the boundaries of how often we treat our students like novices when we utilize CLT! How often do we do this? Should we always do this?


  2. Cognitive Load Theory is Wrong?? – For the Love of Maths Avatar

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  3. […] Reflections from Teaching: When Are Learners Novices No More? […]


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  6. Blair Miller Avatar

    I think it is important to contextualise here what is meant by novice versus expert learner. I think this has to be viewed with regard to a particular topic area. One doesn’t tele-transport from novice to expert magically once hitting a certain level of practice or experience. There are different levels of expertise and understanding, and more troubling for educators, it isn’t a linear progression along this spectrum. We at times make relatively large leaps forward in understanding, at other times are stalled and even sometimes go backwards and make the same mistakes again. Even “experts” have these difficulties, though less frequently and on more challenging tasks then for “novices”. So, yes with regard to a particular topic or skill I certainly would see some of my students as non-novice.

    I would hope my goal is to move my students away from being novices on as many concepts as possible so that they can progress toward expert. That would mean that if I find students part-way along the progression that I confront them with challenges appropriate to their understanding. Examples would include challenges where that particular concept breaks down or requires a better grasp of pre-requisite knowledge. An example that comes to mind, dividing by fractions. Worked examples and direct instruction can help novices learn how to divide by fractions, but once they’re comfortable doing that (as some of my students are coming in, they know to “flip and multiply”) I like to challenge them with dividing fractions with only variables, or explaining why flipping and multiplying works. Regardless of the term expert/novice, we have to meet our students at their level if they are going to improve their understanding.


  7. Dan Meyer Avatar

    The Internet could use more of these quick capsule posts, evenly balanced between theory & practice.


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