The secret to expertise.
What qualifies an expert as an expert? In fields that depend on visual expertise, an expert has the ability to distinguish qualifying traits at a glance. For example, field botanists can recognize species from the window of a moving vehicle; chemists can recognize chemical compounds based on a glance at their structures; mathematicians can read equations as quickly and as easily as we read words. Visual expertise occurs in many fields, even those not commonly thought of as highly visual. If you use your eyes, if you visualize a symbol or an image, then there is a visual aspect to your subject and there is a call for visual expertise.
How does one become an expert? Gaining expertise has traditionally involved grueling hours of study learning plant names, compounds, equations. Because expertise involves the understanding of broad and interconnected concepts, in addition to simple memorization of an extensive base of knowledge, it has always taken an enormous amount of work to become an expert . Fortunately, new research has provided insight into a more effective way to gain visual expertise: active visual learning.
The benefits of visual learning have long been known. The use of graphs, diagrams and photographs have improved textbooks; the addition of color-coding to notes can improve retention. These methods, and others, have long been understood and utilized to improve learning. However, most methods of visual learning that exist today are, for all of their usefulness, passive methods of learning.
Passive and Active Learning
In passive learning, the student only receives information from the source. This learning mode encompasses diverse activities such as reading, viewing slideshows, listening to lectures, and watching videos. Television is the ultimate passive learning tool. What these activities all have in common is the fact that there is only one direction of information flow: from the source to the student. There is no input-output loop; no actual engagement with the material.
Active learning involves interaction with the material being learned. You may remember such an experience in the course of your education, one that stuck with you. For example, one very effective active learning tool is retrieval practice. This is any activity that prompts you to access (or retrieve) knowledge that you have encountered.
Imagine a student attempting to learn a subject that has a visual component: an organism’s life cycle, chemical functional groups, the structure of the heart and its valves. After reading about the subject or listening to a lecture, he closes his notes and draws the life cycle, the chemical structures, or makes a quick sketch of the heart and labels its parts. This activity not only strengthens his memory of the material by forcing him to actively recall information, but it also provides an opportunity for feedback. After making the drawing or sketch he compares what he has written with the original material, finds where he was mistaken or had omitted material, and corrects his mistakes. He repeats this process until he no longer makes errors. Because he works by actively recalling information, the memory connections that he needs to retrieve the information in the future are strengthened .
What is of central importance in this method is the student’s active engagement with the material: he retrieves the information that he can remember and draws it out, then gives himself feedback through his review and correction of what he has drawn. This not only reinforces his memory of the information he had correct, but also allows him to add additional information that he previously omitted. Active knowledge building of this sort creates an inter-connected knowledge base. This kind of knowledge is more accessible and easily applied than memorized facts and images, and is key to the effective application of the material, a defining characteristic of expertise . Also vital to the process of active knowledge building is the opportunity for the student to assess how well he understands the material. This thinking about one’s knowledge and learning, or “meta-cognition,” is known to reinforce learning in a way that is vital to developing expertise .
Because he has been working with visual material, the student receives an added benefit. Symbols and diagrams summarize information in a cohesive way. Isolated bits of information are combined into meaningful schema. Schema can be used to overcome the limitations of working memory, which can hold only 7-9 items at one time. Schema create links between memory elements, and maximize the amount of information that can be stored in these limited number of spaces. Each information-rich block of information occupies only one of the 7-9 slots. The use of visual schema not only unifies pieces of information into a more comprehensive whole, but allows more information to be stored in the limited space of working memory .
Active visual learning is one of the most effective ways to learn. It provides the student with the opportunity to create input-output cycles, to receive feedback on his progress, and to store knowledge in meaningful chunks. Active learning loops result in the construction of an inter-connected knowledge base which is accessible, easily stored, and easily recalled. The reception of information, even of visual information, is passive learning and at best allows for the memorization of isolated facts. Active visual learning makes maximal use of our limited space in working memory, which further optimizes the storage and retrieval of knowledge. Active visual learning involves the full spectrum of learning, from initial comprehension to final storage, retrieval and use of the information.
Alex Hillen & Dr. Bruce Kirchoff
- Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000.
- Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Janell R. Blunt. “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” Science 331.6018 (2011): 772-75. 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Aug. 2012.