Accelerate Expertise Through Mentoring Using Difficult or Tough Real-life Cases

Accelerate Expertise Through Mentoring Using Difficult or Tough Real-life Cases

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In this interview, Dr. Robert Hoffman shares how training methods like mentoring, tough cases, and operational simulation lead to accelerated expertise.

The buzzword “accelerated expertise” has drawn a lot of research and business interest. Previously I have written about research on novice to expertise transition in several posts: Progressions in Novice to Mastery Skill Development and I also shared some key models that explain this transition or progression towards expertise: 7 Models That Explain How Novice Develops into an Expert. In another post titled What Does 9 Famous Training Models Say About Accelerating Expertise?, I touched upon 9 famous training models which hold the potential to accelerate this progression towards expertise. I also explained 6 Training Strategies to Accelerate Expertise from Sternberg’s Model.

Taking it forward, back in September 2014, I was honored to have a conversation with Dr. Robert Hoffman regarding his just-arrived book “Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in Complex World” co-authored with leading experts on expertise: Dr. Lia DiBello, Dr. Stephen Fiore, Dr. Paul Ward, Dr. Dee Andrews, and Dr. Paul Feltovich. Dr. Hoffman shared his research in regards to which specific training methods can lead to the accelerated expertise of individuals.

Dr Robert HoffmanAbout Dr. Robert Hoffman: Dr. Robert Hoffman is a senior research scientist at The Institute of Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola Florida. He is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of “expertise studies”. He has been internationally recognized for his research on expertise, the methodology of knowledge elicitation, and human factors issues in the design of workstation systems and knowledge-based systems. Father of the new ground-breaking concepts of ‘accelerated learning’ and ‘accelerated expertise’, his recent book “Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in Complex World” addresses a very important challenge in today’s business: The need for people to rapidly acquire the knowledge and skills to perform tasks. Through his book, he has appealed to practitioners and researchers to establish regimens of training that could accelerate the achievement of high levels of proficiency. Click here to know more about Dr. Hoffman. 

Accelerated Learning and Accelerated Expertise 

In your book, you raised several different perspectives on accelerated learning. How do you see ‘accelerated learning’ linked to ‘accelerated expertise’? What are your thoughts about the emerging field of ‘accelerated learning’?

Dr. Hoffman: The word acceleration has been used in a number of different senses.  We lay it out like this.  Accelerated training is the idea that you need to train more stuff faster. Accelerated learning is the idea that people learn things more quickly. Accelerated proficiency is the idea that people get to a higher level of proficiency more quickly than people did before. And these are all related, but they are a little bit different.

Accelerated learning applies anywhere on the proficiency skill. You can try and get somebody to go from novice to high proficiency more quickly. And that’s why we call it accelerated expertise because we’re interested in accelerating the achievements specifically to that very highest level of proficiency.

The first book that used the phrase accelerated learning was published in the 1960s, in which they said that studying while listening to classical music could accelerate learning. And the stuff that I am seeing today in the popular press about learning acceleration is really no different. There are lots of people these days who are talking about all sorts of miracle solutions. A lot of the research that I see on these methods of so-called ‘accelerated learning’ doesn’t have the right scientific control conditions. A lot of people doing this stuff don’t think about it as a scientist will think about it. The participants in laboratory settings know that they are getting some sort of special treatment. Maybe that motivation is making them learn faster or better. It’s just like a placebo effect – not really scientifically proven ‘accelerated learning’. There is a need for systematic scientific studies in accelerated learning, which may lead to a body of knowledge towards accelerated expertise.

Accelerated Expertise with Institutionalizing Mentorship

In post-training activities, on-the-job performance support systems can play an important role in overall time to proficiency. In your opinion, how should organizations handle this challenge of managing post-training activities to build and accelerate expertise?

Dr. Hoffman: It’s easy to say that people continue to learn once they get on the job, but there are two considerations here. One thing is that not everybody is motivated to continue to learn after they get on the job. Once you’re out in that context, intrinsic motivation is very important and not all organizations incentivize continuous learning in the workplace.

One of the things we’ve recommended is for organizations to institute and support a systematic mentoring program and provide mentoring especially to people who are just out of training and have started doing the job. What that means is to get a good mentor. A good mentor, by definition, is someone who knows how to perceive the skill level of the apprentice and knows what kinds of problems to give them in order to help them understand the limits of their understanding and the limits and their capabilities, and then push them to the next level, but not push too hard.

Just saying that we want people to mentor is not enough. It has to be institutionalized. There have to be incentives to do it. Organizations have to pay seniors workers to mentor new employees and they have to pay for an apprentice to receive mentorship from a senior worker. Organizations have to institutionalize it and motivate people to do it. That being said, money is not the only reward for real experts. They are intrinsically motivated to learn and improve.

How do you recommend finding mentors in an organization?

Dr. Hoffman: Just because somebody is a senior worker in his domain, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is a good mentor. Some people make good mentors and some people don’t. Somebody may be an expert but not a good mentor. Now that being said, one of the definitions of what it means for someone to be an expert is that they understand that other people don’t know what they know, and they can take the perspective of other people. But not all experts are good mentors. There could be any variety of reasons like they just may not be very good at it or maybe it’s because they never tried or maybe that they don’t like to talk much. There is no science out there that we can refer to for these questions. And someone can be a less senior expert, or even a journeyman, and be a great mentor.

Now the question comes how do you go into an organization and find individuals who might become good mentors?  Science has not been done to determine a procedure that organizations could use to institutionalize mentoring. In my opinion, first, you have to start by finding people who are good mentors. You can do that by a simple social survey by asking questions from the people who are known to be good mentors. Questions like: How did they come to be a good mentor? What were their life experiences? What were their motivations? And once we know how people who are good mentors became good mentors, and why, then we might be able to address the question of how we identify people who might become good mentors. For that, you can go in and start asking questions: Who taught you this? Who do you go to in order to learn something? Who are the best mentors here? Which senior worker here is really the best at teaching other people? So by a simple sort of social survey, you can find the people who seem to be good mentors.

We still need a systematic method for finding people who are earlier in their career who might become good mentors. And, as I mentioned before, right now nobody has done any science on that. There are no funding opportunities for that, even from agencies that profess a goal of improving teaching and learning.

How do you see the notion of experts reaching a stage of ‘automaticity’ where he is not aware of how he has been solving the problem and may have difficulty in explaining their thought process to a mentee?

Dr. Hoffman: Ever since people started studying expertise back in the late 1970s or late 1980s, it has been said that by the time somebody gets to be an expert, their thinking is just automatic and they can’t tell you what they know. I don’t believe that. Yes, it can sometimes be difficult for experts to explain what they’re thinking or what they know, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. My experience is that it comes down to how much support the interviewer gives them to express their knowledge. If you just go up to an expert and ask him ‘tell me everything you know about X’ then, of course, you’re not going to get much of anything. However, if you’re using methods like Critical Decision Method or Concept Mapping and get the expert to talk about specific cases that they were worked on, then you can usually get them to say things.  I have yet to see convincing evidence that experts possess “knowledge-that-is-not-verbalizable-in-principle.”  But of course, you run up against the philosophical issues of what is meant by “knowledge.”  This is all discussed at length in my books on cognitive task analysis: Working Minds (2006) and Perspectives on Cognitive Task Analysis (2008).

Accelerated Expertise Using Difficult or Tough Cases

What are your recommendations to organizations in regards to how they should build training programs to drive the acceleration of expertise?

Dr. Hoffman: One way in which one might be able to accelerate proficiency is to provide people with opportunities to practice on tough cases. That begs the question of where you get the tough cases.  Given the demographics right now, there are many senior workers who are about to retire. So organizations can do knowledge elicitation to capture from them the stories of their tough cases. Then those could be used in training, in particular at the senior apprentice and junior journeyman levels. However, acquiring a corpus or a library of tough cases is not something that can be done very easily or very quickly. It’s hard work and it takes time.

People only achieve expertise after working long and hard on tough problems. But tough problems are rare. So, of course, it’s going to take a long time for people to achieve expertise. So if you could somehow capture and preserve those tough cases, at least you’ve got hope that the next generation you might be able to do faster training. However, this has to be thought of in terms of generations, not what can be done next week.

My notion was that the tough cases that are in a library based on knowledge captured from senior experts would be used for training people who are already at least junior journeymen who have finished their basic training. They’re able to do a competent job on routine cases. However, when they encounter non-routine cases, they may have a little bit of difficulty, and they might need help. That’s where training in tough cases might save organizations a couple of years in the time it takes someone to go from junior journeyman to expert.  Since those folks are already fairly high salaries, the savings could add up.

The idea of using tough cases is to burn some of the time between junior journeymen and junior experts. This is what we referred to as ‘pre-burn’ in our book. Shaving off a couple of years could be a huge saving.

One point to be mentioned is that we need to be careful where to use tough cases. Only with great care do you want to present someone who is really an apprentice with lots of tough cases. A tough case is a problem that’s difficult for a real genuine expert. And for somebody who is just in training, who is an apprentice, it could paralyze them. They would just have no idea what to do.

Deliberate Practice with Zeal

Talking of practice, in your book, there is also an emphasis on practice in order to accelerate the expertise. Is your view of deliberate practice different from Dr. Ericsson’s version?

Dr. Hoffman: The idea actually goes back to Edward Thorndike of 1910, 1911. He called it practice with zeal. And the basic idea is simply that the person is highly motivated to work hard. It is not a theory, it is an empirical fact. Some people seek out challenges and work hard at their roles.  Dr. Ericsson also pointed out that experts often received good mentoring.  Deliberate practice is not just an activity. It’s a reference to the characteristics of the worker, their intrinsic motivation. If a person is not intrinsically motivated to improve, they are not going to be able to engage in deliberate practice. Ideally, of course, the trainee should be highly motivated and they really, really want to challenge themselves and work hard and they really want to improve. And on top of that, if they get good mentoring, it is the ideal case. And as Gary Klein has pointed out, working professionals do not have time to “practice.”  They have to perform.  So there is a notion of deliberate performance, where one is working on a tough case, not just with the goal of solving that case but advancing in proficiency or achieving accelerated expertise.

Promising Training Methods for Accelerated Expertise

Apart from recommending institutionalized mentorship, knowledge base of tough cases, and ‘mentored’ deliberate practice, what other training methods would you specifically recommend to the organizations to implement training programs targeted to accelerated expertise?

Dr. Hoffman: The operational simulation method has a lot of promise. The bottom line is practice, practice, practice, and the use of opportunities to practice actual job problems. When opportunities to work hard on problems are limited, then the opportunities to increase proficiency are likewise going to be limited.

There is a new technique that Gary Klein is looking at called the ShadowBox method, which also has promise. It presents to the learner a case, but the information is presented piecemeal. First, you’re only given a handful of bits of information about the case. And the learner has to pick a couple of those pieces of information as being the important ones to keep. Then they are presented with another set of information about the case. And they have to see if their judgment would change. And again they have to pick just a couple of those pieces of information to keep.  The information about the case is revealed in successive waves. After the person goes through it all, they are shown how an expert would do it. And what pieces of information were really important to the expert. Gary Klein has been testing the method and using it, and he has very strong feelings about its usefulness. Click here to know more about Dr. Gary Klein’s work.

Acknowledgment: Thoughts expressed in this blog are credited to Dr Robert Hoffman.  I highly appreciate Dr. Robert Hoffman spending time with me to provide this insightful information on how accelerating expertise would require exposing learners to tough real-world cases gathered from senior experts and how institutionalizing mentorship will be a mandatory requirement to develop the expertise of employees in tough cases they would be required to solve at their job.


Attri, RK (2018), ‘Accelerated Expertise with Mentoring and Tough Cases: Insights Shared by An Expert on Accelerated Expertise’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <>.


Image attribution: Timisu @ Pixabay, CC0 attribution

About Dr Raman K Attri

Dr Raman K Attri is the world’s #1 authority on the science of speed in professional and organizational settings. He is the world's only professional speaker speaking on the topic of the science of speed. He is the author of 23 multi-genre books. As a performance scientist, he has been recognized as one of the leading ‘Transformational Business Leaders’ of 2022. He was named as one of the ‘Global 500 Leaders’ of 2021, alongside stellar leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Gary Vee, Jim Kwik, and Jay Shetty, to name a few. He has made his space as a true accelerated learning guru, earning over 100 international credentials and degrees, including two doctorates in the learning domain, apart from some of the world’s highest certifications. A corporate business manager, he has been featured and cited in over 125 media features in TV/radio shows, magazines, podcasts, and forums.

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