• Mansour K. Mansour, PhD

CTA: An Innovative Methodology to Maximizing the Impact of Instructional Design and Training

In their effort to replicate expertise, experts are unable to completely and accurately recall the decision knowledge and analytical skills that are an essential component of their expertise – even though they can solve complex problems using the knowledge they can’t describe. Multiple studies have shown that experts leave out or distort approximately 70% of the information (action and decision steps) learners need to replicate the expert’s performance. That is true as a result of the fact that the experts’ knowledge is autonomous. The following are some implications that affect novice learners, so they:

  • receive incomplete information

  • “fill in the blanks”

  • maintain misconceptions

This has huge negative implications on the society and the economy.

Resources: | Cognitive Task Analysis for Expert-Based Instruction in Healthcare | The use of Cognitive Task Analysis to Capture Expert Instruction in Teaching Mathematics |

The following diagram shows the stages that learners go through to build up their expertise and become experts in their domain. The diagram goes further to showing the stages that experts in their domain go through when they attempt to recall their decision knowledge and analytical skills that are an essential component of their expertise to communicate to others. Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) provides an innovative methodology to maximizing the impact of instructional design and training.

Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) uses interview and observation protocols to uncover and make explicit cognitive processes experts use and novices need to acquire to complete complex tasks. The captured knowledge is most often transferred to training or the development of expert systems. An overall average post-training learning and performance gain of about 46% for CTA training when compared to more traditional training design using expert-based task analysis. Other analysis showed an overall learning gain of 31%.

Resources: | Cognitive Task Analysis for Expert-Based Instruction in Healthcare | Introduction to Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) | USC Libraries | Learning Research at the Center for Cognitive Tech |

“Researchers have identified over 100 types of CTA methods currently in use, which can make it difficult for the novice practitioner to choose the appropriate method (Cooke, 1994). The number and variety of CTA methods are due primarily to the diverse paths that the development of CTA has taken. Cooke (1994) conducted one of the more extensive reviews of CTA. She identified three broad families of techniques:

  1. Observations and interviews involve watching experts and talking with them.

  2. Process tracing techniques typically capture an expert’s performance of a specific task via either a think-aloud protocol or subsequent recall.

  3. In contrast, conceptual techniques produce structured, interrelated representations of relevant concepts within a domain.”

Resources: | Chapter 43 – Cognitive Task Analysis |

“Yates (2007) analyzed all published descriptions of different methods of CTA and identified approximately 100. Of the 100, Yates and Feldon (2208) concluded, “ … only six … are formal methods supported by empirical evidence and standardized procedures that, if followed, predict knowledge outcomes.”(p. 16). Clark et al. (2008, 2010) suggest that of the six evidence-based CTA methods that are most compatible with instruction, most are implemented in five stages:

  1. The CTA analyst identifies the target performance goals and reviews general knowledge about the task domain to become familiar with terms and processes.

  2. Experts are asked to describe the sequence of tasks that must be performed in order for the performance goals to be achieved.

  3. Multiple experts are asked to describe the step-by-step knowledge required to perform each of the tasks as well as the conceptual knowledge related to the steps.

  4. The CTA analyst categorizes and formats the elicited knowledge and verifies it for accuracy and completeness by reviewing transcripts and cross-checking with multiple SMEs. In some CTA approaches, the analysts test the elicited knowledge by providing it to novices and testing their performance.

  5. The CTA analyst formats the edited knowledge for trainees by selecting one viable approach to teach that includes, for example, procedures that include action and decision steps, conceptual knowledge, and job aids.

The result of this process is at least three different versions of the tasks and steps needed to achieve a performance goal (versions depend on the number of SMEs interviewed). After the separate lists are edited and corrected by all SMEs, the separate lists are condensed into the master list of steps (often called a “gold standard” CTA). This gold standard list consists of the sequence of tasks or subtasks that must be performed in order to achieve a performance goal and the action and decision steps necessary to achieve each task.”

Resources: | Chapter 43 – Cognitive Task Analysis |

“CTA has proven to be an effective method for eliciting the nuances in expert knowledge, such as decision points and perspectives, resulting in a variety of instructional strategies utilizing the outcomes of CTA (Crandall et al., 2006; Hoffman & Militello, 2009; Means & Gott, 1998). Studies across a variety of domains have explored the degree to which CTA-informed instruction has influenced learning outcomes. In another review, Clark (2014) noted that CTA results in nearly 30-45% learning performance increases as compared to instruction that is informed by traditional observation or task analysis.”

Even though it takes 20% to 30% longer to design the training instructions using CTA making it more expensive, studies performed at the University of Southern California showed the effectiveness of CTA based instructions over the traditional ones adding value in the following fields:

Medicine – Training USC Surgeons:

  • 40% better learning retention

  • 30% faster learning

  • 50% fewer important errors

Leadership Instruction

  • 48% better learning retention

Education (factoring quadratic equation)

  • 38% better performance

Resources: | The use of Cognitive Task Analysis to Capture Expert Instruction in Teaching Mathematics | Introduction to Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) | Learning Research at the Center for Cognitive Tech |

In a nutshell, CTA based instructional design and training add value as well as maximize effectiveness over traditional methods.


  • Cognitive task analysis: Interview and observation protocols for extracting implicit and explicit knowledge from experts for use in instruction and expert systems.

  • Automated knowledge: About how to do something; with repetition, it operates outside of conscious awareness and executes much faster than conscious processes.

  • Complex tasks: Tasks where performance requires the integrated use of both controlled and automated knowledge to perform tasks that often extend over many hours or days.

  • Declarative knowledge: Knowledge about what or why; hierarchically structured; formatted as propositional, episodic, or visuospatial information that is accessible in long-term memory and consciously observable in working memory.

  • Subject-matter expert (SME): A person with extensive experience who is able to perform a class of tasks rapidly and successfully

Resources: | Chapter 43 – Cognitive Task Analysis |

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