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12 Models of Skill Acquisition and Development: From a Novice to Expertise and Mastery

rapid skill acquisiiton

One of the challenge training and learning designers face is developing curriculum and strategies that are meant to advance the learners to next level of mastery in skills learned. There are a number of theories which attempt to explain how learners move from novice to expert. In this post I will summarize the most popular and most relevant models on novice-to-expert development for training and learning designers.

A journey of learner, especially a novice towards becoming an expert and master is a fascinating topic and training professionals love to create their own unconfirmed theories on such a topic. This discussion always becomes interesting but ironically never gets good consensus in regards to definitions of, and even names of different stages through which a novice develops into an expert.

Though there are arguments against existence of clear-cut stages, few studies confirmed that there is occurrence of level-like shift in some qualitative traits as notice moves to become expert (Adelson 1984; Gaeth 1980; Phelps & Shanteau 1978; Spiro et al. 1989). I personally believe these are more of continuous boundary-less phases rather than stages. For this post I will stick to word ‘stages’.

Robinson (1974) 4-Stages Unconscious Competence Model

The early known work in explaining stages of proficiency is known as ‘conscious competence’. Chapman of Business Balls cited that an article of The Personnel Journal (1974) attributes origin of Conscious competence to W. Lewis Robinson, Vice President of ICS way back in 1970s. The article quotes Robinson explaining that individual progresses through four definite stages of learning a new skill (or behavior, ability, technique, etc.):

  1. Unconscious incompetence: In the beginning, a person is not aware of that he lacks a particular skill or in several cases individual may not even know the relevance or usefulness of the skill.
  2. Conscious incompetence:  Then the person moves to a stage where he starts becoming aware of the existence and relevance of the skill and they may start recognizing how much he doesn’t know.
  3. Conscious competence: Now he starts working toward attaining that skill and does necessary practice. During this stage he can reliably perform the learnt skill without assistance. This still requires attention, concentration and has not yet become automatic at it.
  4. Unconscious competence: With consistent practice and repeated use, the individual moves to next stage of ‘unconscious competence’ when the skill become automatic (i.e. the skill enters the subconscious mind and become second nature).
Four-quadrants of conscious competence model
Image: Four-quadrants of conscious competence model

The original nomenclature of competency has been replaced by broader term competence and is called Conscious competence theory. The model has several representations the popular being the quadrant matrix (as shown in Figure below). The model emphasize progression is from quadrant 1 through 2 and 3 to 4. It is not possible to jump stages. For some advanced skills, individual may actually regress back to previous stages for want of consistent practice on newly learnt skills (as cited by Chapman of Business Balls). There is still a debate on whether expertise’s last stage should be unconscious competence or it should be called conscious competence where learner can explain what he is doing (Cheetam & Chivers, 2005).

  competence incompetence
  3 – conscious competence 2 – conscious incompetence
  • the person achieves ‘conscious competence’ in a skill when they can perform it reliably at will
  • the person will need to concentrate and think in order to perform the skill
  • the person can perform the skill without assistance
  • the person will not reliably perform the skill unless thinking about it – the skill is not yet ‘second nature’ or ‘automatic’
  • the person should be able to demonstrate the skill to another, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person
  • the person should ideally continue to practice the new skill, and if appropriate commit to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ at the new skill
  • practice is the single most effective way to move from stage 3 to 4
  • the person becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill
  • the person is therefore also aware of their deficiency in this area, ideally by attempting or trying to use the skill
  • the person realizes that by improving their skill or ability in this area their effectiveness will improve
  • ideally the person has a measure of the extent of their deficiency in the relevant skill, and a measure of what level of skill is required for their own competence
  • the person ideally makes a commitment to learn and practice the new skill, and to move to the ‘conscious competence’ stage
  4 – unconscious competence 1 – unconscious incompetence
  • the skill becomes so practiced that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain – it becomes ‘second nature’
  • common examples are driving, sports activities, typing, manual dexterity tasks, listening and communicating
  • it becomes possible for certain skills to be performed while doing something else, for example, knitting while reading a book
  • the person might now be able to teach others in the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it – the skill has become largely instinctual
  • this arguably gives rise to the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked periodically against new standards
  • the person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area
  • the person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned
  • the person might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill
  • the person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin
  • the aim of the trainee or learner and the trainer or teacher is to move the person into the ‘conscious competence’ stage, by demonstrating the skill or ability and the benefit that it will bring to the person’s effectiveness

Table: Adapted from Alan Chapman (N.d.) Conscious competence learning model matrix – unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, Business Balls.

The issue with these models is that it conceptually explains how individual learns but do not provide a way to quantify or segregate the development path of a learner. There are not very clear-cut indications how to measure attainment of each stage or where a particular stage ends. Further we do not know if this model is grounded in research or not.

Gordon’s and Langvin’s variation of 4-Stages Unconscious Competence Model

California based Gordon Training Institute has been using  similar model called ‘The Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill’ in which they replaced ‘skilled and unskilled’ for ‘competence and incompetence’, with underlying concept being same. The model emphasizes that to learn any skill there are four learning stages each individual goes through: unconsciously unskilled, consciously Unskilled, Consciously Skilled, and unconsciously skilled (Adams, N.d.). Cited by Linda Adams from Gordon’s website:

  1. Unconsciously unskilled. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are inept and unaware of it.
  2. Consciously unskilled. We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.
  3. Consciously skilled. Trying the skill out, experimenting, practicing. We now know how to do the skill the right way, but need to think and work hard to do it.
  4. Unconsciously skilled. If we continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier, and given time, even natural.

Langvin institute (2012) uses conscious competence model by renaming the stages using terminology from Dreyfus (2001) and Hoffman (2006) terminology. Their stages are:  The Novice/ Unconscious Incompetence, The Apprentice/ Conscious Incompetence, The Journeymen /Conscious Competence, The Master / Unconscious Competence. Cited from Langvin website:

  1. The Novice/Unconscious Incompetence: Often learners display excitement and enthusiasm in this stage because they don’t know that they don’t know.
  2. The Apprentice/Conscious Incompetence: In this stage the learners know they don’t know. This is where they recognize that they are out of their comfort zone because the skill to be learned may be more difficult than anticipated. It is in this stage that the learner may want to give up. It is important in this stage to build confidence with continued mentoring and coaching.
  3. The Journeymen/ Conscious Competence: Here, the learners know they know. With consistent practice and feedback the learners usually experience different levels of success. It is not uncommon for there to be some level of frustration because they are still conscious that they must concentrate and pay attention to performing the skill correctly; however, in time, and through trial and error, the practice becomes less challenging.
  4. The Master/Unconscious Competence: In this stage of learning, the learners don’t know they know. The learner has such mastery of the skill(s) that it becomes automatic. They no longer have to think about it; it becomes effortless. This is where the learner may experience magical moments because they feel intuitive, creative, and think outside of the box; however, it is also at this stage where major mistakes can occur because there is a tendency to take risks and short cuts.

Both of these models, just like Robinson’s model are not known to be grounded in research. However, it makes quite a common sense and representation is easy to understand.

Will Taylor (2007) 5 Stages Reflective Competence Model

The new body of argument are emerging which indicate that at ‘Unconscious competence’ level, the individual may cease to learn any further and may lack knowledge or skills on new methods and thus as an expert individual will find himself once again unconsciously incompetent. William Taylor suggested a Reflective Competence Model (as cited by Alan Chapman in Business Balls, n.d.) with a fifth level called reflective competence to represent the continuous self-observation to keep ideas and skills fresh, and allows for skill development further (shown in Figure below).

Reflective competence

Image- Reflective Competence Model (Courtesy: Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007 – taken from Business Balls)

Just like previous models on unconscious competence, it is not known if the model is grounded in research or not. However, it makes quite a common sense and representation is easy to understand.

Fitts (1986) 3 Stages Model of Skill Development

Fitts (1986) provided a similar model in skill development which supports progression from conscious to less conscious form of practice. His model has only three stages of expertise:

  1. Cognitive stage: Learner constantly and consciously interact with nature and mechanics of what is being done
  2. Practice fixation stage: Multiple repetitions help to bring the steps in the long term memory
  3. Autonomous stage: At this stage skill can be automatically or subconsciously executed. Conscious mind can be used in monitoring and solving problem.

The highest stage in this model highlights “subconscious” use of skill whereas the previous model call is unconscious state. Fitts’ usage of the state is more appropriate. This model provides the mechanism by which the automaticity is achieved. However, it does not directly demarcate the level of expertise which can be measured.

Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986) 5-Stages Skill Acquisition Model

The Dreyfus model is based on the basic notion that acquisition of skill is a continuous process and skill is transformed by experience and mastery, and that this then brings about a change in performance. As novice progresses, he acquires more and more situational understanding and able to exert his intuition in several situations. According to this model during skill acquisition, competence, proficient and expert are points in the continuum of performance whereby novice is one side of the scale while expert is on other end of the scale and individual demonstrates different type of performance at each level. According to Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986: 35) the most important difference between the levels of expertise is the gradual shift from analysis to intuition and the grade of involvement

Dreyfus and Dreyfus changed the nomenclature of the levels from their original 1980 proposal to new ones as: to: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competence, Proficiency, and Expertise (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986). In the original model they did not have “advanced beginner”. Over the years this has remained the most simplistic and most commonly used model of stages of skill progression due to its implication in professional and training world. Several authors (like Benner, 1984; Trotter, 1986; Flyvberg, 1990; Eraut, 1994; Benner, 2004; Gunderman, 2009; Atherton, 2011,Khan & Ramachandran, 2012) cited and used Dreyfus & Dreyfus’s work in different professions.

Eraut (1994) summarizes Dreyfus’s stages as follows:

1. Novice
  • Rigid adherence to taught rules or plans
  • Little situational perception
  • No discretionary judgment
2. Advanced Beginner
  • Guidelines for action based on attributes or aspects (aspects are global
  • characteristics of situations recognizable only after some prior experience)
  • Situational perception still limited
  • All attributes and aspects are treated separately and given equal importance
3. Competent
  • Coping with crowdedness
  • Now sees actions at least partially in terms of longer-term goals
  • Conscious, deliberate planning
  • Standardized and routinized procedures
4. Proficient
  • Sees situations holistically rather than in terms of aspects
  • Sees what is most important in a situation
  • Perceives deviations from the normal pattern
  • Decision-making less labored
  • Uses maxims for guidance, whose meanings vary according to the situation
5. Expert
  • No longer relies on rules, guidelines or maxims
  • Intuitive grasp of situations based on deep tacit understanding
  • Analytic approaches used only in novel situations or when problems occur
  • Vision of what is possible

Dreyfus & Dreyfus (2001 and 2008) 7-Stages Model of Practical Wisdom

Based in in-depth interviews with Dreyfus brothers, Flyvberg (1990, 1991) contested that Dryfus’s model did not account for progressive innovation and practical wisdom. A subsequent work by Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2001) includes sixth stage called ‘Mastery’ beyond the level of expertise. They differentiated it from competence or expertise as “A very different sort of deliberation from that of a rule-using competent performer or of a deliberating expert characterizes the master”. An important difference between an expert and master is explained by Dreyfus (2001) as:

When an expert learns, she must either create a new perspective in a situation when a learned perspective has failed, or improve the action guided by a particular intuitive perspective when the intuitive action proves inadequate. A master will not only continue to do this, but will also, in situations where she is already capable of what is considered adequate expert performance, be open to a new intuitive perspective and accompanying action that will lead to performance that exceeds conventional expertise (p 44).

Subsequently Dreyfus (2008) added seventh stage on practical wisdom in the original Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. These two additional stages are summarized in Table 2.

Level Characteristics
6. Mastery Performance becomes a reflex in most common situations. Sets new standards of performance. Mostly deals with complex situations intuitively. Has a unique vision of what may be possible related to the given task. Able to train other experts at national or international level (Khan, K. & Ramachandran, S. (2012))
7. Practical Wisdom  This describes the assimilation of the master’s creations within the culture of a work unit or organization. In my interpretation, this is the closure of the cycle and describes the giving back from the master to the domain, enhancing the domain body of knowledge itself Steve, n.d. adapted from Dreyfus, H.L. 2001)

Alexander (2003) 3-Stages Model of Acclimation to Proficiency Development

Alexander (2003) presented a simplified 3 stage model for expert development which includes: Acclimation, Competence, and Proficiency/Expertise. Alexander uses Proficiency and expertise as one and same thing. She postulated that knowledge (domain and topic), strategic processing (surface and deep), and interest (long term and situational) are the three components interact with each other as the individual progresses towards the expertise. Knowledge component is subdivided into domain knowledge (breadth of knowledge within a field) and topic knowledge (specific items or instances of knowledge within the scope of domain knowledge). Strategy processing component addresses the development of more sophisticated learning strategies from surface-level strategies as he/she progresses towards expertise. The third component interest has two forms individual interest, which are long term interest in a domain and the situational interest which is short term and relates to the immediate situation.

As cited by Baker (2006), Alexander states that a synergy among these components is necessary for the learner to move from competence into the proficiency /expertise stage. The main use of this model is managing student’s progress and providing them with practical instructional environment.

Stages Knowledge (domain/topic) Strategic processing (surface-level/ deep) Interest (individual or situational)
1. Acclimation Learners have limited or fragmented domain and topic knowledge Challenging tasks prompt to use surface-level strategic processing Reliance on situational interest to maintain learner focus and performance
2. Competence Learners demonstrate foundation body of knowledge Use surface level strategies and develop deep-processing strategies to acquire knowledge Individual interest reduced reliance on situational interest
3. Proficiency / Expertise Broad and deep topic/domain knowledge base Use deep processing strategies almost exclusively High individual interest and engagement

Hoffman (1998) 7-Stages Journeyman Model

Hoffman (2006) defined the following proficiency scale which has characteristic similarity with the Dreyfus’s model with the addition of a stage 2 (initiate). In that sense, Apprentice corresponds to competent and journeyman corresponds to proficient. More generally, 0 corresponds to the person completely ignorant in the studied domain. Anyone in the range from 1 to 4 in this table is considered a novice, and 5 and 6 are experts.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6
Naivette Novice Initiate Apprentice Journeyman Expert Master

Detailed definitions cited from Hoffman (1998):

  1. Naive: One who is totally ignorant of a domain
  2. Novice: Literally, someone who is new – a probationary member. There has been some minimal exposure to the domain.
  3. Initiate: Literally, a novice who has been through an initiation ceremony and has begun introductory instruction.
  4. Apprentice: Literally, one who is learning – a student undergoing a program of instruction beyond the introductory level. Traditionally, the apprentice is immersed in the domain by living with and assisting someone at a higher level. The length of an apprenticeship depends on the domain, ranging from about one to 12 years in the Craft Guilds.
  5. Journeyman: Literally, a person who can perform a day’s labor unsupervised, although working under orders. An experienced and reliable worker, or one who has achieved a level of competence. Despite high levels of motivation, it is possible to remain at this proficiency level for life.
  6. Expert:  The distinguished or brilliant journeyman, highly regarded by peers, whose judgments are uncommonly accurate and reliable, whose performance shows consummate skill and economy of effort, and who can deal effectively with certain types of rare or “tough” cases. Also, an expert is one who has special skills or knowledge derived from extensive experience with subdomains.
  7. Master: Traditionally, a master is any journeyman or expert who is also qualified to teach those at a lower level. Traditionally, a master is one of an elite group of experts whose judgments set the regulations, standards, or ideals. Also, a master can be that expert who is regarded by the other experts as being “the” expert, or the “real” expert, especially with regard to sub-domain knowledge.

Hoffman’s model is known to be grounded in research and cited in several publications.

Flowers (2012) 4-Stages Model of Capacity

Not very well known probably because it is not grounded in the research, rather it is product of Steve Flowers’s own experience and customization. Steve Flowers (2012) categorized levels of performer across three dimensions: Selection, interpretation, and execution and then came up with 4 stages namely: Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman and Master.  Following novice through master, each level is matched with a more colloquial label (in words of Steve Flowers). Novice is matched with the label ‘Burden’ since it can be a challenge to find the right resources to grow a novice.  The model is writtehn in very simple observable language as seen in most jobs, though the context is not very clear in this model. Interested readers can see the model at link in the reference.

Inage- Courtesy Steve Flowers (2012) available at http://androidgogy.com/2012/09/16/skill-proficiency-expertise-and-shuhari/

Atherton (2013) 4-Stage Model of Expertise

James Atherton offers an extension which narrows down the definition and mechanism of attaining proficiency. He adds that an expert might be defined by the demonstration of following 4 components:

  1. Competence: The ability to perform a requisite range of skills. Normally in very narrow range of practice. Atherton offer example of nurses taking blood samples may be more expert in it than doctors.
  2. Contextualization: Knowing when to do what. It is the additional skill of flexibility, discrimination and discretion which enables a practitioner to select the appropriate method for the situation. Knowing when to do what is the beginning of strategic thinking.
  3. Contingency: The flexibility to cope, adapt, and respond when things go wrong. Atherton clarifies that this implies a great depth of understanding of the situation, which can be drawn upon to develop a strategy for action which does not simply rely on predetermined recipes. There is an element of strategy in contextualization, but here it comes far more to the fore.
  4. Creativity: The capacity to solve novel problems.

atherton 2013 model

Image courtesy: James Atherton at http://www.doceo.co.uk/background/expertise.htm 

I did not find any evidence of this model being grounded in research or backed by research.

Khan and Ramachandran (2012) 6-Stage Model of Performance

Khan and Ramchandran created a model specific to medical field based on Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986) and combining it with Institute of Conservation London (2003). As a result they re-write Dreyfus’s stages in more professionally applicable way.

  • Novice: Rules (protocol)-based performance Direct supervision needed at all times. Unable to deal with complexity. Task seen in isolation
  • Advanced Beginner: Guidelines-based performance; Able to achieve partial resolution of complex tasks; Task seen as a series of steps; Able to perform routine tasks under indirect supervision; Direct supervision needed for complex tasks only.
  • Competent: At competent level, performance not solely based on rules and guidelines but also on previous experience; Able to perform routine complex tasks; Able to deal with complexity with analysis and planning; Task seen as one construct; Training and supervision needed for non-routine complex tasks.
  • Proficient: At proficient level, performance mostly is based on experience; Able to perform on acceptable standards routinely; Able to deal with complexity analytically; Related options also seen beyond the given task; Still needing supervision for non-routine complex tasks; Able to train and supervise others performing routine complex tasks.
  • Expert: At expert level, performance based on experience and intuition; Achieves excellent performance In complex situations moves easily between analytical and intuitive solutions; All options related to the given task are considered; Able to train and supervise others performing routine and non-routine complex tasks
  • Mastery: At mastery level, performance becomes a reflex in most common situations; Sets new standards of performance; Mostly deals with complex situations intuitively; Has a unique vision of what may be possible related to the given task; Able to train other experts at national or international level.

Rosenberg (2013) 4-Stage Model of Learning to Mastery

One of the latest contribution, though not very well grounded in research, but developed from experience, Rosenberg (2012) explained skill acquisition or development of learner as 4 stages, each characterized by how ones perform the job at each stage of progression. These 4 stages are: Novice, Competent, Experienced, Master / Expert as described below by Marc J. Rosenberg.

  1. Novice. A novice (or apprentice) is, by definition, new to a job. Novices know little or nothing about the work, certainly too little to be able to perform to any acceptable standard. Novices must be taught (or shown) the basics of what is to be done before they can have any chance of being productive. The learning strategy here is overwhelmingly instructional. “Show me (teach me) how to do my job,” they ask.
  2. Competent. Competent (or journeyman) workers can perform jobs and tasks to basic standards. They’ve had their basic training and now look for more coaching and practice to get better at what they do. “Help me do it better,” is their primary request.
  3. Experienced. This is where it gets really interesting. Experienced workers are beyond merely competent. They can vary their performance based on unique situations. Because they encounter a variable and often unpredictable set of work problems and challenges, they need access to knowledge and performance resources on demand, and the ability to search those resources in ways that are flexible and customizable by them, depending on the situation. “Help me find what I need,” they ask, as they search for information, from sophisticated online systems to the coworkers around them.
  4. Master/Expert. Masters and experts create new knowledge. They invent new and better ways to do a job, and they can teach others how to do it. They are truly unique individuals and seek to learn in unique and personal ways, primarily through collaboration, research, and problem solving. “I’ll create my own learning,” they say.


 Image courtesy: Marc J. Rosenberg @ Marc My Words

I think his model is simple representation of how learning and job performance integrates together and acts as a good guide to develop training for appropriate audience.

What it means to you as training and learning designer?

Since there are several models which talk about staged skill acquisition, sometimes it may become very confusing for the training professionals. My recommendations would be:

  • Stick to one model and then build the curriculum based on characteristics of each level as defined in that model. From training design standpoint, a training program whose target is to produce competent learner will be drastically different from a training program whose goal is to develop expertise of learners.
  • One key rule here is to define and quantify the performance expected at each level from learners. This quantified measure of performance at each level helps build better training program.

Key question to ask is: How proficient performer or learner will be demonstrating performance different from a competent performer? 

Which model you have been using in your training design and why? Do share. 

Image credits: http://www.onlinecultus.com/rapid-skill-acquisition/


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  24. Rosenberg, M. J. (2012) Beyond Competence: It’s the Journey to Mastery the Counts, Learning Solution Magazine available at: http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/930/

About Raman K. Attri

Raman K. Attri is a complex learning strategist, a transformational training consultant and a researcher with over 20 years of experience in engineering, management and technical training. His primary area of focus is to provide strategic directions to organizations in implementing next-generation competitive training strategies. His research interests include complex learning, accelerated expertise and advanced instructional design. He is also the founder of Personal Resonance©, a research forum with a charter to transform proven research studies on accelerated expertise into organizational training practices. His training and learning solutions are strongly founded in system engineering techniques applied to large-scale training programs. Equipped with scientific training methods, he innovated two research-backed complex learning frameworks namely SEAT© (Systems Engineering Approach to Training) and ProBT© (Proficiency Based Training) methodology primarily meant for organizations to accelerate development of complex cognitive skills of their employees systematically at faster rate. He is highly passionate about learning. He holds Professional Doctorate in Corporate Training, MBA in Operations Management and Executive MBA in Customer Relationship Management. Currently he is pursuing another Doctorate degree from Southern Cross University. His personal interests involve writing and painting.
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