Experience Facilitates Collaboration in Complex Tasks

Experience and knowledge, researchers have found, not only help one person solve a problem in their area of expertise but also help people to work together in solving complex problems. 

Beckman Institute researcher Dan Morrow and his collaborators, former Beckman Fellows Timothy Nokes-Malach and Michelle Meade, reported on the research for the journal Thinking and Reasoning. Their paper, called The effect of expertise on collaborative problem solving, reported on a synergistic effect for pairs of experts faced with a challenging problem that produced greater success than for experts working alone, and more constructive interactions than for pairs of nonexperts who worked together.

The study used expert flight instructors, student pilots (novices), and non-pilots, with 32 participants from each of the three groups. They were asked to work alone or in pairs in problem-solving tasks involving an aviation scenario. Problem solving was done with either another participant of the same level of expertise or alone and required identifying the problem in the scenario and generating a solution.

Morrow said that, as expected, the experts collaborated more effectively than pairs of novices and non-pilots to identify solutions to the problems.

“In fact, experts performed better in pairs than when working alone, while this was not the case for the less expert participants,” he said. “However, those results were found only when they were faced with a challenging rather than a simple problem-solving task.

“The findings suggest the importance of knowledge about the task for collaborative benefits,” Morrow added. “Experts may more effectively work together than novices do because they share knowledge that helps them build up shared task representations that support joint problem solving. Novices, on the other hand, may have more trouble coordinating problem solving, so that they focus on different information, or interrupt each other, when trying to work together.”

The study focused on group collaborations – particularly on questions resulting from examples of collaborative success outside the laboratory and collaborative inhibition found in previous psychology experiments – to test the researchers’ hypothesis about collaborative success and what they call a zone of proximal facilitation.

The researchers hypothesized that “collaborative success is achieved when the relationship between the dyad’s prior expertise and the complexity of the task creates a situation that affords constructive and interactive processes between group members.” That success, they theorize, was because a dyad’s “prior knowledge and experience enables them to benefit from both knowledge-based problem solving processes (e.g., elaboration, explanation, and error correction) and collaborative skills (e.g., creating common ground, maintaining joint attention to the task).”

The results involving knowledge and experience when it comes to problem-solving were clear.

“Taken together,” the researchers wrote, “the problem-solving results suggest that collaborative success is a complex interaction of the prior knowledge and experience of the individuals working together, and the relation of their combined knowledge to the task (complexity level and task structure). The results support the hypothesis that individual learner and task structure combine to create a zone of proximal facilitation in which participants can go beyond what they could do individually.”

Morrow is a Professor in the College of Education and member of the Human Perception and Performance group. Nokes-Malach is in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and Meade is in the Department of Psychology at Montana State University. The research was supported by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation through its Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows program that Meade and Nokes-Malach were part of and through a National Institutes of Health grant to Morrow.