<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1373947175984693&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Learning & Development Blog

SMEs make bad instructors

Those Who Do, Can’t Teach: Why SMEs Make Bad Instructors

If you want to become a world class swimmer, Michael Phelps seems like he'd be an ideal coach. His 18 gold medals are enough reason to have confidence he knows a ton about swimming. But would Michael Phelps actually be a good teacher?


When looking for a facilitator or teacher, we often think top performers in the field can offer the best guidance and advice. It makes logical sense - they perform at the target level others want to reach. But is it accurate?

Beth Crandall, as detailed in “Critical decision method: a technique for eliciting concrete assessment indicators from the intuition of NICU nurses” in Advances in Nursing Science, was a researcher with funding from the National Institutes of Health. She set out to study how nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a large hospital made decisions about when a baby was developing an infection. With the premature babies weighing as little as two pounds, noticing an infection early on and providing antibiotics before it spreads is critical in saving lives.

Many of the nurses relied upon their intuition for when to put the babies on antibiotics. The hospitals would occasionally do tests that came back negative after the nurses had recommended the antibiotics. The next day the hospital would test again and discover the nurses had been right. They were able to recognize the infection before the tests could, but how?


When asked by the researcher as to how they knew when the babies had an infection, many nurses responded, "it's intuition" or "through experience." They knew when the babies had an infection, but clearly couldn't articulate exactly how they knew. For training new nurses on how to spot an early infection in premature babies, telling them "use your intuition" or "you'll know with enough experience" is incredibly unhelpful.

Beth wanted to fully understand how the nurses made the decision. She interviewed the nurses one by one, asking them to report specific cases where they noticed an infection. The nurses shared the details of the cases they could remember and Beth compiled each of the incidents along with the cues. During her compiling, she discovered several patterns among the nurses, some of them in the current medical literature, but surprisingly half of the cues were new with a few cues being the opposite of the cues for the septic infection in adults. For example, adults generally become more irritable with an infection while babies become less irritable.

For training new nurses on saving the lives of premature babies, the hospital could then develop training with several of the cues in the context of realistic scenarios, allowing nurses to build their intuition and pattern matching abilities. Nurses would learn faster, as well as more accurately, how to spot an infection before it spreads.

Do subject matter experts make bad trainers?

It's possible that a nurse could have carried out the study, but it may have been more difficult. Subject matter experts are definitely capable of being great instructors though sometimes their knowledge actually makes it harder for them to be an effective trainer. When you're a domain expert in your field, it's difficult to step back and remember what it was like to be a beginner. Once we have knowledge, it’s very hard to remember what life was like without it.

Instead of placing the burden of training on a subject matter expert, it’s often more effective to establish a collaboration between SMEs and trainers who are experts in breaking down information, recognizing the critical elements, and putting it back together in a way that’s digestible for people who aren’t experts. Working with SMEs frees them of valuable time and delivers more effective training, which in the case of the nurses at the hospital, is literally life-saving.

It’s frequently said that those who can't do, teach, but maybe just as often the opposite is true—those who can do, can’t teach.


Seven Archetypes of Subject Matter Experts Ebook