Beware the Expert Blind Spot

By Heather Landers

As content experts, faculty seldom wrestle with the developmental or foundational concepts that are the basis for understanding in their disciplines. Often, they call upon these component skills—or the underlying knowledge—with such automaticity that they fail to go over with their students the separate steps that must be taken to solve a problem or get to an answer.

When faculty underestimate the time and energy needed for students to complete an activity or understand a concept that—to them—seems straightforward and simple, they have failed to recognize their own expert blind spot (Nathan & Koedinger, 2000).

In fact, the more expertise and experience an individual has, the more difficult it is for them to break skills and concepts down into their component parts. This leads to frustration on both sides: students don’t understand what they’re being asked to do, and instructors don’t understand why the students aren’t getting what has been explained so clearly!

Ideas for avoiding the expert blind spot pitfall:

  • Sit down with assignments and spend some time thinking through your underlying assumptions regarding what you expect your students to already know or understand—what are the things in addition that they will need to know or understand in order to perform the task?
  • Use a teaching assistant to help break down tasks—usually they have a closer affinity to the shoes in which your students are walking and will have a clearer sense of the component parts of a task that might elude an expert.
  • Ask someone outside your discipline to look over assignments.
  • Clue students in on what is important, or is a main point, of a task or assignment. Being unfamiliar with new content, students often have trouble pulling out main points and may misappropriate their energies when completing a task.
  • After assignments are handed in, assess what skills or knowledge your students seem to be lacking most. Reinforce weak skills through more practice.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Nathan, M. J., & Koedinger, K. R. (2000a). Teachers’ and researchers’ beliefs about the development of algebraic reasoning. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 31, 168-190.

Nathan, M. J., and Koedinger, K. R. (2000b). An investigation of teachers’ beliefs of students’ algebra development. Cognition and Instruction, 18, 207-235.


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