Learning by observing and imitating others has long been recognized as constituting a powerful learning strategy for humans. Recent findings from neuroscience research, more specifically on the mirror neuron system, begin to provide insight into the neural bases of learning by observation and imitation. These findings are discussed here, along with their potential consequences for the design of instruction, focusing in particular on the effectiveness of dynamic vs. static visualizations.
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The terms observational learning and imitation learning are often used interchangeably, but they may be distinguished in that learning may occur without imitation taking place, that is, we may learn by observing and generating inferences beyond the observation without actually imitating the observed model (Bandura 1986). Because it is broader, we will use the term “observational learning” throughout this article.
It is important to define expertise here. Some authors define “experts” as being individuals who excel in a domain (Ericsson and Lehmann 1996), others as individuals with extensive experience in a domain (Chi et al. 1988), but in educational research, it is also often used to refer to individuals who can perform a particular task really well (e.g., as in the “expertise reversal effect”; Kalyuga et al. 2003). This can have important consequences for the effectiveness of models, because domain experts differ enormously from students in the amount of knowledge they have, in the way this knowledge is organized, and the extent to which experts have automated problem-solving procedures (Chi et al. 1988). Therefore, having domain experts as a model might not help students, because the knowledge gap is too large, whereas task experts might be effective models. The issue can be resolved by consistently using the term “expertise” in a relative rather than absolute sense. In this paper, the term “expertise” should be considered in terms of “levels of expertise” rather than absolute expertise. One instructional technique may facilitate expertise more than another because it increases knowledge more irrespective of the absolute level of expertise, and an expert can be someone with a higher level of expertise than the learner.
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van Gog, T., Paas, F., Marcus, N. et al. The Mirror Neuron System and Observational Learning: Implications for the Effectiveness of Dynamic Visualizations. Educ Psychol Rev 21, 21–30 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-008-9094-3
- Mirror neuron system
- Observational learning
- Cognitive load