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Make Decisions Like an Expert with the Help of Cognitive Apprenticeship

Sep 14, 2017 9:00:00 AM

Neurons firing

Think for a moment about someone you know that is an expert at something. They could be great at their job, defusing conflicts, or managing their health. Now think about how they do it, and how you would build a program to help others achieve better performance in that area. Pretty challenging, right? Why is it so hard?

A seminal article from the 90’s entitled Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, greatly influenced the 21st Century Learning Initiative. Stop and think about the words: “making thinking visible.” Experts have mental models they use to make decisions that are completely invisible to the rest of us. This invisibility is why it’s so challenging.

Experts have mental models they use to make decisions that are completely invisible to the rest of us.

So how do we go about helping others acquire the cognitive skills, the behavior, of an expert? Let’s start with what is often done, and most often fails: create formulas - if this happens, then do this. The problem with this approach is that rarely, in fluid life situations, does the formula apply. Thus, the skill training does not transfer to real life behavior.

For thousands of years, apprenticeship has successfully solved this problem for acquiring physical (visible) skills. What Cognitive Apprenticeship can do for us, is provide a framework to expose the thinking of the experts and allow non-experts to start to recognize how to apply these “invisible” thinking patterns, in performance settings.

Let’s look at three ways you can use cognitive apprenticeship to help accelerate skill acquisition in your programs:

  1. Modeling. This step involves exposing an expert’s thinking process, and breaking down their mental model into steps. We can then generalize their thinking processes so it can be applied to more than one specific situation. Just simply asking an expert to tell you what is important can be disappointing. They often provide facts, procedures, and anecdotes that don’t reveal their thinking. It’s not because they are being evasive (usually!). As a master of the skill, their decision-making processes are largely intuitive. So, we must draw their decision-making process out of them to model it.
  2. Making it Visible. Here, we will want to use various learning methods to expose the expert’s mental models to learners in various decision-making situations. Simulation, interactive case studies, and role playing are common approaches. This can be done in live programs, or digitally. For example, at Syandus, we immerse learners in realistic virtual environments, where they make decisions with contextual, mentoring feedback.
  3. Coaching. As with traditional apprenticeship, coaching and mentoring is an essential part of cognitive apprenticeship. By providing guidance to the learner as they make decisions, we can help them recognize the expert thinking processes for themselves. If you can provide live, one-on-one coaching with an expert in your program, that’s ideal. Often because of cost and scale, live coaching is not feasible. Any mentoring feedback in a digital program will benefit the learner. In our programs, we’ve developed conversational, virtual coaching technology to help make the skill acquisition process feel as real, and translatable, as possible.

Incorporating these and other cognitive science concepts into your next skill acquisition program may help learners improve their real-world performance.


Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum. "Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible." American educator 15.3 (1991): 6-11.

About Syandus: Virtual immersive learning technology that transforms knowledge into real-world performance. We immerse participants in realistic virtual situations with one-on-one expert coaching that gives them experience making optimal decisions. Syandus Learning Modules combine cognitive science principles, the realism of game technology, and our customer’s proprietary content, to deliver rapid skill acquisition. Modules are cloud-based for easy deployment, fully trackable with embedded analytics, and can be used on any web-enabled device.

Douglas Seifert, PhD

Written by Douglas Seifert, PhD

Doug leads a team at Syandus that combines cognitive science with virtual game technology to create rapid skill acquisition. The company has won several awards from the National Science Foundation’s Education Division.