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5 Famous Expertise Development Models Explain Novice to Mastery Skill Progression


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. In one of my last posts I compiled different models and theories on skill acquisition. Not all model or theories support ‘mastery’ . Most of theories or models shows the journey only uptil expertise stage. In this post, I will combine stages from the angle of mastery and include only those models which support achievement of ‘mastery’ as a realistic goal.

In this post I will go beyond Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s famous model and add some later research studies and contemporary models by some consultants and industry thought leaders.

5 Skill Development Models Explaining Progression Towards Mastery

Here is how different models and thought leaders explains progression of a novice towards acquiring mastery in stages.

Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986, 2001, 2008) Skill Acquisition and Practical Wisdom 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). Later in 2001, they added another stage of “mastery’ and in 2008 they added last stage as ‘Practical Wisdom’ to their model. See my previous posts for details of this model.

Hoffman (1998) Journeyman Model

Hoffman (2006) defined a t proficiency scale which has characteristic similarity with the Dreyfus’s model with the addition of a stage 2 (initiate) between novice and advanced beginner. In that sense, apprentice corresponds to advanced beginner while journeyman corresponds to either competent or proficient. As such this model did not account for proficient level distinctly. 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. Hoffman’s model is known to be grounded in research and cited in several publications.  See my previous post on details of this model.

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

Alexander (2003) 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. See my previous post for details on this model. 

Flowers (2012) 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 written 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/

Rosenberg (2013) Beyond Competence Model

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. 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. See my previous post on details of this model or see the reference.


 Image courtesy: Marc J. Rosenberg @ Marc My Words

Explaining Progression to Mastery

Here is how each of the model defines progression stages. The thoughts expressed in original researcher or thought leader’s own words verbatim where possible. Look for references for the sources.

1) Novice Stage

Novice (Hoffman, 1998): Literally, someone who is new – a probationary member. There has been some minimal exposure to the domain. Hoffman called another level as ‘Initiate’ to indicate a novice who has been through an initiation ceremony and has begun introductory instruction.

Novice (Rosenberg, 2012). 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) Progressing to Advanced Beginner Stage

Advanced Beginner (Dreyfus, 1986): As the novice attain some experience in real situations, his performance start improving to marginally acceptable level (DiBello, Lehman, Missldine, 2011). Learners in this stage develop the comprehension  of objective facts, initial concepts, and specific rules and are able to apply them within a discipline or in structured settings but may struggle to apply them to real world situations (Piantanida, n.d; Noreen. 1975). As novice gains more practical and concrete experience, he starts comparing the new situations with previously experienced situations but still applies the earlier learned rules. This enables him to deal with unrecognized facts and elements. At this stage learner learns to apply more sophisticated rules to both context-free and situation factors. These rules make it possible for the advanced beginners to shape the experience so that it is possible to learn from experience but situational perception is still limited. Learners may be comfortable solving routine well-defined problems but may be ineffective and inefficient in manipulating knowledge in unfamiliar settings or in solving ill-defined problems.

Apprentice (Hoffman, 1998): 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.

Acclimation (Alexander, 2003): 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

3) Progressing to Competence Stage

Competent (Dreyfus 1980, 1986): With experience learner begins to recognize more and more context-free and situational elements. At this point learner is able to organize the situation and then concentrate on important elements. He is able to assess the situation, set the goal and then choose a best course of action. He may or may not apply rules. He may or may not be successful but that constitute an important element of future expertise.

Journeyman (Hoffman 1998): 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.

Competence (Alexander, 2003): In terms of Knowledge (domain/topic), learners demonstrate foundation body of knowledge.  In terms of strategic processing, learners at this level use surface level strategies and develop deep-processing strategies to acquire knowledge. Learner’s individual interest increases and reduced reliance on situational interest.

Competent (Rosenberg, 2012): 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.

4) Progressing to Proficient Stage

Proficient (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1981, 1984, 1986): At this level leaner is deeply involved in the task. He is capable of identifying the important part of the tasks and pay requisite attention. Proficient person sees the situations holistically in terms of various elements. As situation changes, his deliberation, plan and assessment may change. With changing situations, he is able to see new patterns which deviate from the normal. Decision making is very quick and fluid because of the experience in similar situation in past. However proficient learner will use maxims to guide his decision making. Consistency in performance distinguishes this phase from the previous phase.

Proficiency / Expertise (Alexander, 2003): Combines proficiency and expertise stage into one. Broad and deep topic/domain knowledge base. Use deep processing strategies almost exclusively. High individual interest and engagement

Experienced (Rosenberg, 2012): 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.

5) Progressing to Expert Stage

Expert (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1981, 1984, 1986): Experts don’t apply rules, or uses any maxims or guidelines. He rather has intuitive grasp of situations based on his deep tacit understanding. One key aspect of this level is that individual relies on intuition and analytical approach is used only in new situations or unrecognized problems not earlier experienced. Experience based deep understanding provides him very fluid performance. At this stage skills becomes automatic that even expert is not aware of it. Based on priori experience, they can even come up with solution for new never experienced before situations (DiBello, Lehman, Missldine, 2011). “Experts” adopt a contextual approach to problem solving and understand the relative, non-absolute nature of knowledge. This ability distinguishes the “expert” from the “proficient” practitioner (D’Youville College, n.d.). Reflection comes naturally and experts solve problems almost unconsciously.

Expert (Hoffman, 1998):  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.

Master/Expert (Rosenberg, 2012): Rosenberg defines it as one single stage rather than two different stages. 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.

6) Progressing to Mastery Stage

Mastery (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2001, 2008): A subsequent work by Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2001) includes sixth stage of “Mastery” beyond expertise in their model stating mastery 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).

Master (Hoffman, 1998): 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.

Specialist Stage: A new stage between Proficient and Expert?

There could be a debate what should be an organizational training goal. Though expertise and mastery stage looks appealing, one needs to be conscious about the time it takes to reach expertise or mastery.

  • On the side of expertise, let’s be realistic. How many of the organizations really want each and every employee they have to operate at expert level? Probably not many. Designing training and learning to accelerate acquisition of expertise is still in its fancy. Though there are lots of research, but most of those are in closed domains like sports and music or similar. Applying expertise theories in organizational context requires not only organizational energy but also great amount of personal commitment from employees.
  • On the side of mastery, producing masters is probably not going to be the goal of training in the organization. Attaining mastery requires different game plan and it might actually be difficult to keep moving toward mastery in ever-changing dynamic world of business. Further definitions and measurements of mastery in professional world is something which has not even seen the day light.

Therefore I asserted in one post that most organizations need to make ‘proficiency’ stage as goal of their organization training. However, as my thinking is evolving, I am of the opinion that organizations very soon would need higher level training goals than proficiency. I am proposing that there should be another stage of ‘Specialist’ between Proficient and Expert. In my research it looks like ‘specialization’ makes path to expertise shorter. Given that expertise takes very long, it makes sense to add a ‘specialist’ level which is measurable and verifiable against organizational standards. Going beyond proficiency level, that could be a more realizable goal developing employees into specialists who operates “like” expert but may not be true experts yet. I have written a preliminary post from personal expertise angle earlier, but I will come back with an expanded post based on my research so far in regards to my view of ‘Specialist’ stage in skill acquisition model.

We as training professionals could talk about whether there is a need to define and add ‘Specialist’ level. Do add your comments.

Two key questions for readers:

How do you view mastery different from expertise in organizational context? 
Do you see there should be a ‘specialist level’ between proficient and expert?

 Main image credit: Image Arcade / Livelifeunleashed.com


  1. Alexander, P. A. (2003). The Development of Expertise: The Journey From Acclimation to Proficiency. Educational Researcher, 32(8), 10-14. doi: 10.3102/0013189×032008010
  2. Baker, R., (2006) The Development of Expertise: The Journey from Acclimation to Proficiency, a critical review, Journal of Comprehensive Research, Volume 4, Page 48
  3. Dreyfus SE and Dreyfus HL (1980) A Five-Stage Model of the Acquisition of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition. AFSC: USAF (contract F49620-79-c-0063). University of California: Berkeley. available at http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA084551&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf
  4. Dreyfus, H.L., Dreyfus, S.E., (1986). Mind over machine: The power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  5. Dreyfus, H. L. and Dreyfus, S. E. (1986a). Why skills cannot be represented by Rules. In. Sharley, Elis, Hardwood, and Chichester, Advances in cognitive science. pp.315-335.
  6. Dreyfus, H. (2007). Design conference on the learning environment: keynote address from novice to expert. Dreyfus, H. L. (2004). A Phenomenology of Skill Acquisition as the basis for a Merleau-Pontian Nonrepresentationalist Cognitive Science. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Department of Philosophy. Online version: http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/pdf/MerleauPontySkillCogSci.pdfACGME Bull April 2007: 6-8.
  7. Dreyfus, H. L. & Dreyfus, S. E. (2008). Beyond Expertise: some preliminary thoughts on mastery. In Klaus Nielsen, K. et al. (eds) A Qualitative Stance: Essays in honor of Steiner Kvale. pp 113-124. Aarhus University Press . Available at: www.ieor.berkeley.edu/People/Faculty/dreyfus-pubs/mastery.doc‎
  8. Dreyfus, H.L., (2008). On the Internet. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
  9. Flowers, S . (2012). Defining Competence, Proficiency, Expertise, and Mastery. At androidgogy blog available at http://androidgogy.com/2012/09/16/skill-proficiency-expertise-and-shuhari/
  10. Hoffman, R. R. (1998). How can expertise be defined?: Implications of research from cognitive psychology. In R. Williams, W. Faulkner, & J. Fleck (Eds.), Exploring expertise (pp. 81–100). New York: Macmillan.
  11. 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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