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The Novice-Expert Continuum

Updated: May 16, 2023

We need expert learners – people with the will and the skill to continuously learn, improve, and support the improvement of their colleagues and teams. However, we can’t assume that everyone comes to us with that will and skill or that they are being empowered and supported to operate in that way. Our people’s performance as a learner is variable, based on capacity and context. I like to illustrate that variability in what I call the novice-expert continuum.

The Novice-Expert Learner Continuum

On the left end of the continuum, we have novice learners – ones that are primarily guided by external forces. They learn what they’re told, when they’re told, for the reasons given to them – the type of learner that top-down, one-size-fits-all learning was meant to serve. On the other end, we have expert learners – the types of learners we need in the modern world of work. You can see the progression from novice to self-directed and ultimately to expert in the table above.

A person’s learning behavior is not static – we can support novice learners to become experts. Likewise, conditions can exist that can impede the practices of otherwise expert learners, pushing them back into self-directed and even novice learner behavior.

To get expert learners, we have to make sure they have the capacity to operate in that way AND ensure the context is optimized for them to operate in that way. Otherwise, whatever will or skill they possess can be dampened by any number of barriers – lack of psychological safety, inadequate time for collaboration, inaccessible materials, etc.

So, in observing your learners, consider where they are operating in this continuum. Ask them where they see themselves. Leverage Universal Design for Learning in that effort to help you work with them, and their managers, to diagnose barriers to learning and performance. Based on that collaborative diagnosis, provide options and support where they are needed so people can build and leverage their capacity to learn and perform at their best.

James McKenna

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Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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