Upon discovering that amateurs and experts go through the same thought process, Adriaan de Groot described the process in four steps:
- The Orientation Phase
In the orientation phase, the player examines the board to see where all the pieces are placed. In this phase, the chess player is evaluating the positions and determining the biggest problem. The biggest problem is where the pieces are weakest and will result in a loss. In this initial phase, the experts reveal themselves by evaluating the board very rapidly and determining the real problem almost immediately.
- The Exploration Phase
In the second phase, players begin exploring their options. De Groot describes this in terms of goal-setting. The chess player has two options for their move; they can move to protect a piece or move to attack the opponent’s piece. In this goal-setting phase, the player examines the pieces and determines whether offense or defense will be the best move at this point in the game.
- The Investigation Phase
The third phase is concrete investigation. The player has set a goal, so now he investigates the pieces and decides which can move. It is easy to see this stage in a novice, they have to think through each piece and how it moves. They investigate through thoughts like, “that pawn can move forward, but that knight has to move two squares vertically and one horizontally, so no, that doesn’t help me.”
The expert is able to move through the investigation much more rapidly. In the orientation phase, the expert already determined the main problem so they already know which pieces to focus on and their knowledge of chess allows them to rapidly investigate the possibilities for their move. The investigation phase ends with a decision for the player’s move.
- The Proof Phase
The proof phase tests the player’s decision. The chess player works with their move and analyzes the possible results. They work to determine what will their opponent do if they make that move, what options have they left open to the opponent, and how will that then impact their next moves. The player at this point is evaluating their decision and making sure it is best for the course of the game.
Why Does It Matter
Adriaan de Groot’s study of chess players defines the thought process that we all go through as we tackle a problem, whether it’s on a chess board or it’s a problem in some other area or discipline. When we understand the four-step process, we can choose to work through that process more deliberately in order to come to the best move for our turn.
Additionally, de Groot’s study teaches us about expert performance and expertise. His analysis shows that there is not a difference in how expert chess players approach their turn, but there is a difference in their speed. Their speed in moving through the four-step thought process is built through their knowledge and experience. They have gained competence through long years of training. They have seen the board in many different arrangements and know how they have approached that move in the past. Experts have also spent time studying what other chess players have done in certain matches or competitions, and can draw on that set of experience in addition to their own.
De Groot’s study led to a new approach to training chess players. As educators we want to ask how we can improve the training of our students so they can become experts in their discipline or field. One possible start is to help them work through the four steps of the thought process when they are faced with a problem. For the novices, the four steps will be a slow process, but as they gain experience they will also gain speed. A second possible step is to help them continue to level up by adding more experiences and more examples to their current knowledge base. For the chess players, that comes with studying other players and other matches. What does it look like for your students?
On our path to becoming experts and to helping our students become experts, how can we incorporate de Groot’s four-step thought process and his findings on expertise?