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You can't become an expert in college

March 17, 2010, 8:26 pm

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

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