Novices and experts approach problems very differently. Broadly speaking, distinctions between their approaches include:

Novices… Experts
  • Memorize how to solve specific problems.
  • Believe that you can solve most problems by memorizing only a few central principles.
  • Identify problems in terms of surface elements.

Ex.: “This is an inclined plane problem.”

  • Identify problems using principles by which you can solve them.

Ex.:  “This is a friction and gravity problem.”

  • Believe that most problems are too difficult for them to solve.
  • Are confident that they can solve problems, work a long time before giving up, and do not believe that this is a waste of time.
  • Do not think about how they solve problems but instead just plow through them.
  • Are able and willing to evaluate their own thinking.
  • Move on to the next problem without considering possible connections between them or the concepts that may inform them.
  • After solving problems, review why the question was important, asking why the professor gave the assignment.

Related readings:

“Transforming Novice Problem Solvers Into Experts,” 
Teach Talk Vol. XIII, No. 3, January/February 2001 (available on-line at

Novice v. Expert Problem Solvers