A Key Feature of Genuine Expertise

Genuine expertise is not merely knowing a lot about a given area, but living in accordance with this knowledge — to recognize when a situation, or problem, calls for some particular set of knowledge one has acquired, and to apply said knowledge.

Over 10 years ago, Mark A. MacDaniel published a chapter titled “Transfer: Rediscovering a central concept” in which he argued that “Transfer is the most central concept in learning and memory”. He went on to describe transfer-appropriate processing (TAP), a principle according to which the relationship between how information is encoded and how one attempts to retrieve it affects memory performance. In particular, recall is easier when one tries to retrieve information in a similar state and manner in which one processed it previously. He states further that:

I believe that failure to consider the dynamics of TAP has led to misguided testing practices in [formal] education.

The same can be said about self-directed learning among adults.

Whether or not particular TAP theories adequately explain transfer,

  1. transfer ought to be an important goal of self-directed learning efforts (but it typically isn’t),
  2. transfer is difficult even under the best of circumstances,
  3. whereas some bright young adults may be able to get away with not being particularly deliberate about their learning, brain aging brings a host of cognitive challenges that are particularly problematic for those who haven’t consciously cultivated their learning.
  4. there is cognitive science that can be leveraged to promote transfer.

The Cognitive Productivity framework is specifically designed to address the theoretical and practical challenges involved in processing knowledge in such a way as to promote transfer. That’s why the subtitle of Cognitive Productivity is Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, which is not merely a matter of remembering information by rote but being able to use it. In that book, for instance, I proposed that it is helpful to ensure that our information processing time is not too skewed towards taking in new information, and to dedicate some time to review and practice.

One of my next blog posts will discuss concepts that are very helpful to keep in mind when designing your learning activities for transfer:

  • cues (particularly : reconstructible discriminative cues),
  • mental indexes, and
  • mental hooks

I will use examples of learning from expository sources and fiction.

Coincidentally, just before writing this post, I attended Robert Lepage + Ex Machina’s, unforgettably spectacular artistic performance about memory, 887. I’m sure that regular readers of this blog would thoroughly enjoy that performance as it deals with many CogZest themes, including some that are in this very post (such as the reason why I created the reconstructible discriminative cue system described in Cognitive Productivity).


McDaniel, M. A. (2007). Transfer: Rediscovering a central concept. In H. L. Roediger, Y. Dudai, & S. M. Fitzpatrick, Science of memory: Concepts.

Robert Lepage’s 887: A New Creation by Robert Lepage and Ex Machina.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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