Expertise reversal and annoying feedback

By: Olle ten Cate (@olletencate)

Do you recognize that slight irritation when you have just figured out how to do something and then someone, usually more experienced, starts explaining what you should do? It could be something in the household, it could relate to a hobby, it could be from someone next to you while you drive a car, or from someone watching while you perform a professional activity.

I recognize it. And my experience is that this irritation can come along, paradoxically, with a mixed feeling of affection for the one trying to help me. It usually is well meant, but can be irritating and distracting at the same time. I wondered why is that, and how can feedback be more productive, and I started looking for theoretical explanations. 

Cognitive Load Theory (CTL) on human cognitive architecture, specifically the management of an individual’s working memory (WM), may provide an explanation. The WM has a limited processing capacity – we simply cannot process much information at the same time; the WM may become overloaded. CTL is an important theory that helps understanding how learners acquire, store and retrieve knowledge in, and from, the long-term memory (LTM), processed in the WM.

For various individuals, some information can be too complex too understand without help, and other information is easy to process, for instance because they have seen and understood it before (in technical terms: it has been already cultivated and processed in the WM before and suitably stored as ‘schemas’ or scripts in the LTM that and can instantly be retrieved).1,2

The “Expertise Reversal Effect” (ERE) within Cognitive Load Theory points at a relative deterioration in expert learning performance with the same instruction and support that is beneficial for less experienced or novice learners. There is quite some evidence for this effect. For example, explanatory notes are more helpful for novices when embedded in texts but for experts if they are added at the end of a text.3 The ERE is a cognitive phenomenon. Some regard it as one instance of the so-called ‘element interactivity’ burden in the WM.4 Processing various elements simultaneously in the WM is already difficult, but if these elements also interact with each other, managing your cognitive load becomes even harder. For experts, redundant instruction may feel as so-called extraneous load, and rather distracting because of element interactivity than helpful. But the irritating effect of some feedback seems more than just cognitive.

Schnotz sees a motivation component (”the extraneous load due to a waste of time and effort resulting from irrelevant cognitive processing is essentially a load on a motivational resource rather than a cognitive resource” 5). While motivation is not the same as emotion, it feels closer to emotion (and irritation) than cognition. Schrader and Kalyuga found frustration to emerge when advanced learners must process easy tasks6, and it seems likely that redundant instruction and feedback would only add to that frustration.

It is not surprising that researchers find that similar instructional guidance for novices and experts for the same task is not so useful. An expert simply does not need the instruction that a novice needs. Does that also hold for feedback?

Though feedback is not identical to instructional guidance, it is close, and the two are not easy to disentangle. Telling a student that they have done well, or not so well, is not instruction, but a form of feedback, be it very weak. Adding instruction makes feedback richer (“next time, do X this way”) and really merges feedback with instructional guidance. Adequate instructional guidance is the type of help that is useful within a ‘Zone of proximal development’ (ZPD – Vygotsky’s brilliant conceptualization7); before a learner reaches that zone, they can do without help. Conversely, beyond that zone a task is too difficult, even with help. Naturally, the ZPDs of novices and experts are located differently. The expert’s ZPD is simply farther away than a novice’s ZPD.

The expertise reversal effect regards instruction that is distracting, rather than helpful. The resulting irritation consumes energy and occupies cognitive load, which is then not available for the actual task, and seemingly ‘reverses’ the expertise. At moments in their development, learners have a need for autonomy and space for self-determination. That does not always fit well with receiving feedback.8

What should we take away from this? Some feedback that is useful for some learners is likely counterproductive for others. Learners who can figure things out by themselves should do just that. They are not in a ZPD, and educators might help them by keeping quiet (and being proud)! Everyone has their own ZPD and a good educator should be sensitive for when leaners benefit from a bit of feedback, and when not.

About the author: Olle ten cate, PhD, is a senior scientist at the Center for Research and Development of Education Universiteit Utrecht, the Netherlands.


1. Sweller J, JJG van Merrienboer, FGWC Paas. Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educ Psychol Rev. 1998;10(3):251–296.

2. Young JQ, J Van Merrienboer, S Durning, O ten Cate. 2014. Cognitive Load Theory: Implications for medical education: AMEE Guide No. 86. Med Teach. 2014;36(5):371-84.

3. Kalyuga S, J Sweller. 2018. Cognitive Load Theory and Expertise Reversal. In: Ericsson K, R Hoffman, A Kozbelt, A Williams, editors. Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK; p. 793–811.

4. Chen O, S Kalyuga, J Sweller . The Expertise Reversal Effect is a Variant of the More General Element Interactivity Effect. Educ Psychol Rev. 2017;29(2):393–405.

5. Schnotz W. Reanalyzing the expertise reversal effect. Instr Sci. 2010;38(3):315–23.

6. Schrader C, S Kalyuga. 2022. Expertise reversal effect in a pen-tablet-based learning environment: The role of learningcentered emotions in the interplay between learner expertise and task complexity. Br J Educ Psychol.2022;1–17. Online ahead of print.

7. Vygotsky LS. 1978. Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

8. ten Cate OTJ. Why receiving feedback collides with self-determination. Adv Heal Sci Educ. 2012;18(4):845–9.

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