Working with Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) by Dr. Kathy Iverson

Working with SME’s?  Watch out for their blind spots.

Did you know that we all have a retinal blind spot?  It’s where the axons that make up the retinal nerve exit the eye.  There are no visual receptors in this small area.  Take the “blind spot test” to see how it works.  First, look at the two orange dots below.  Then close or cover one eye and turn your head slowly and look over your shoulder and then slowly bring your head back to a forward position.  Did you see one dot disappear and then reappear?  If so, you found your blind spot.

blind spot

Expert blind spots (EBS) are not as easy to see.  Those who have highly developed knowledge of a specific area tend to find it difficult to understand the learning needs of novices (Nathan, Koedinger, and Alibali 2001).    Research has shown that knowledge and pedagogy are, in fact, two different domains—meaning that just because someone is expert in a field of study, this doesn’t mean that she can teach it to newbies.  So what causes this blind spot?  Some believe it is our tendency to underestimate the difficulty of a task that we know well.  The old, “aw, you can do it—it’s easy” principle that we’ve all experienced at one time or another when we are coached by an expert whether on the baseball field or when learning a new piece of software.

In training, we often rely on SME’s or subject matter experts as resources during the analysis and development phases.  Early on in the analysis phase, SME’s can provide valuable insight by identifying training needs, and during the design process, they define the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for task performance.

As we rely on experts to help us in instruction, we must also be aware of their potential “blind spots” in translating expertise into instruction.  Here are some strategies to minimize expert blind spots:

Rely on your knowledge of learning theory and understanding of learner needs when designing training.
Know that experts can provide valuable information about content but may not give you the best advice about how to teach it to novices.
If you must have non-instructional experts teach others what they know to be sure to incorporate a “train the trainer” component to develop your experts’ pedagogical skill.
Have you experienced this phenomenon either in your personal or professional life?

What additional strategies can you think of to manage the “expert blind spot” phenomenon when designing or delivering instruction?

For more on research in expert blind spots, see

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