Review: how important is domain-specific knowledge for expertise?

Michael Fordham asked:

I’m after some of the most important studies looking at domain-specificity in the nature of expertise, including those which challenge role of domain-specificity. Recommendations?”

This is a list of papers which I have read which speak to that question, in rough order of value.  I have only included papers I have read.  I try to read widely and critically, but I can offer not promises that this covers everything – I don’t know what I don’t know.

If you know what I don’t know, please let me know – seriously.  If you know a good paper I should add to this list (particularly anything which provides good evidence challenging the role of domain-specificity) please suggest it in the comments below.

Where they exist I’ve included links to open-access papers.

Great introductions

Perkins, D. and Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound?. Educational Researcher, 18(1), pp.16-25.

This is a very helpful summary of the debate – it looks at the phases of the research over the preceding fifty years, from looking at intelligence as something general, to the reasons why researches became increasingly convinced it is domain-specific, and, finally, the reintroduction of generalised reasoning.  The summaries and explanations are clearer and briefer than most other things I’ve read as it’s a review article.

To me, this paper also seems good reflection of the evidence that domain-specificity is not important – it’s flimsy.  They do their best to make a case, but mostly on the grounds that ‘logically, there must be something else’ and by use of the classic ‘Of course knowledge is inescapably important, but…’

Bailin, S., Case, R., Coombs, J. and Daniels, L. (1999). Conceptualizing critical thinking. Journal of Curriculum Studies. 31(3) 285-302.

I cite this a lot: it shows that critical thinking relies on knowledge of the thing you’re thinking about.  So if we want to think critically (creatively/decisively/whatever) we need to know the field inside out.

Simon, H., Chase, W. (1973) Skill in Chess. American Scientist 61(4) 394-403

This is the seminal paper which catalysed the study of domain-specific knoweldge in expertise (based on de Grooot’s previous work…)  Previous research showed chess masters remember chess pieces well if they are in a game position, but not if they are placed at random.  Through a range of studies, they showed that people remember chunks of the board – combinations of pieces, and argued that a master’s skill rested on the addition, over a decade, of thousands of ‘chunks’ of moves.  Skill is therefore pattern-recognition acquired by practice.

Other papers showing it is important


Klein, G. (1998) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This book is fascinating, enjoyable, and takes quite a different approach to most treatments of this topic I’ve read, which are in the laboratory.  Naturalistic-Decision Making studies how people decide under pressure: they shadowed fire and military officers and interviewed them about what had happened.  They argue that what looks like intuition is actually tacitly codified experience: experts have particular knowledge structures which enable them to make decisions effectively.

Larkin, J., McDermott, J., Simon, D., Simon, H. (1980) Expert and Novice Performance in Solving Physics Problems. Science 208(4450):1335-42

A classic piece, much cited since, which compared experts and novices problem-solving.  Novices work backwards from the desired solution, the expert just solved everything immediately.  Expert had stored a whole procedure – not just some equations; had automated many procedures – didn’t have to keep testing en route. Experts (in Computer Science language) compile: run a series of a operations in one go, without having to stop and check.  Expertise is what you know and how you find your way around it.

Chi, M., Glaser, R., and Rees, E. (1982). Expertise in problem solving. In Sternberg, R. (ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 7-75

Experts and novices approach problems in different ways: experts sort problems differently (according to their deep structure, not superficial features), summarise better, have extensive procedural knowledge.  Novices can identify key terms as well as experts but lack the knowledge to solve problems.

Kirkman, M.A. (2013). Deliberate practice, domain-specific expertise, and implications for surgical education in current climes, Journal of Surgical Education, 70(3), pp.309-17.

Expertise is domain-specific and context-specific (it doesn’t transfer between hospitals). Reducing doctors hours may slow their learning.  Choosing a sub-specialism may be important: expertise doesn’t transfer even between similar procedures.

Recht, D. R. & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 16-20.

A classic, oft-cited study, compared students with high and low prior knowledge of baseball and reading comprehension scores.  Those who knew baseball well understood a text about baseball equally well, irrespective of their assessed reading ability; those with high reading ability but low knowledge of baseball understood the text no better than those with low reading ability.

Alternative explanations for expertise

Schmidt, H. and Rikers, R. (2007). How expertise develops in medicine: knowledge encapsulation and illness script formation. Medical Education, 41, pp.1133–1139.

I’ve put this at the end because it does at least acknowledge the possibility of alternative explanations to domain-specific expertise: but it dismisses them.  Nonetheless, it’s also good on the value of experience for intermediate learners.  They note that it’s not the expansion of knowledge but how it’s structured that changes as doctors become more experienced.

Plomin, R., Shakeshaft, N., McMillan, A. and Trzaskowski, M. (2014). Nature, nurture, and expertise. Intelligence, 45, pp.46-59.

I guess this is an alternative explanation for expertise: this large scale study found at least half of the variation in reading expertise can be explained by heritability. Shared environment makes up a negligible influence and certainly no more than 20%.  However, new training environments might change that.

Frick, R. (1992). Interestingness. British Journal of Psychology, 83(1), pp.113-128.

Greater background knowledge doesn’t make passages more interesting alone – but it does allow us to create interesting propostions which do increase interest (we have to know enough to see why a statement might be interesting, e.g. that a heavyweight boxer addressed Harvard on Shakespeare.

Ben Willbrink made a large number of suggestions in this thread.

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