The effect of expertise on collaborative problem solving

Timothy J. Nokes-Malach, Michelle L. Meade, Daniel G. Morrow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Why do some groups succeed where others fail? We hypothesise 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. We call this state the zone of proximal facilitation in which the dyad's prior knowledge and experience enables them to benefit from both knowledge-based problem-solving processes (e.g., elaboration, explanation, and error correction) andcollaborative skills (e.g., creating common ground, maintaining joint attention to the task). To test this hypothesis we conducted an experiment in which participants with different levels of aviation expertise, experts (flight instructors), novices (student pilots), and non-pilots, read flight problem scenarios of varying complexity and had to identify the problem and generate a solution with either another participant of the same level of expertise or alone. The non-pilots showed collaborative inhibition on problem identification in which dyads performed worse than their predicted potential for both simple and complex scenarios, whereas the novices and experts did not. On solution generation the non-pilot and novice dyads performed at their predicted potential with no collaborative inhibition on either simple or complex scenarios. In contrast, expert dyads showed collaborative gains, withdyads performing above their predicted potential, but only for the complex scenarios. On simple scenarios the expert dyads showed collaborative inhibition and performed worse than their predicted potential. We discuss the implications of these results for theories of collaborative problem solving.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)32-58
Number of pages27
JournalThinking and Reasoning
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Collaborative inhibition
  • Collaborative success
  • Decision-making
  • Expertise
  • Problem-solving

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (miscellaneous)
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Philosophy


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