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6 Phases of Skill Acquisition in Towards Mastery: Combining Multiple Views of Dreyfus Model

Stages of skill acquisition

During my Doctorate research first thing I was looking for a scale or phases of acquisition of skills. One of the most recognized works in specifying stages of expertise was proposed by Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986). However, I came across so many different variations of the model that I thought I will compile a table. This post is an attempt to combine various perspectives into one. I view progression in skill acquisition as “phases” rather than “stages”. At this moment I will stick to word ‘stage’. as My intent here is not to critique Dreyfus’s model but to integrate summaries from various leading authors and bloggers (at least those I think were doing good job in simplifying the model and making it more useful).

Dreyfus & Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

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.

Over the years including Dreyfus (1986, 2001, 2008) several other researchers like Burns (2012), Gunderman (2009), Berner (1984), Eraut (1990), Khan and Ramachandran (2012), Stan Lester (2010), Steve Flowers (2012) have significantly added more perspectives to definition of each of the levels. I am compiling those thoughts into one post here.


Novice as defined by Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1980, 1981, 1984, 1986)

This is first stage where novice works to gain better understanding of skills mostly through formal training. Novice continues to be unaware of the particular skills or knowledge that must be applied by the practitioner in real world situations; learners indicate an interest and willingness to develop the necessary skills and knowledge. During this phase novice learns to recognize various facts and figures pertaining to the skill as well as rules for deciding how to act on it. Novice takes these facts and figure context free. They are trained to adhere to rules rigidly and apply them in any situation. From that perspective they will not have much situational perception or discretionary judgment whether or not to apply a given rule in a given situation.

Novice definitions refined, rephrased or supplemented by others:

  • Beginners, because they have no experience with the situations in which they are expected to perform, must depend on rules to guide their actions. Following rules however has its limits. No rule can tell novices which tasks are most relevant in real life situations. The novice will usually ask to be shown or told what to do (Patricia Benner, 1984, pp 13-34).
  • Rigid adherence to taught rules or plans. Little situational perception. No discretionary judgment (Eraut Michael, 1994). 
  • Novice is 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 (Hoffman, 1998).
  • Minimal, or ‘textbook’ knowledge without connecting it to practice. Unlikely to be satisfactory unless closely supervised. Needs close supervision or instruction. Little or no conception of dealing with complexity. Tends to see actions in isolation (Institute of Conservation, London, 2003).
  • Novices are beginners who lack any previous experience with a task. The novice learns basic rules for necessary actions but lacks the understanding to deviate from prescribed performance. Therefore, novices can perform an action only by applying rules they have learned to use in a specific context (Gunderman,  2009).
  • At novice level knowledge is treated Without reference to context but no recognition of relevance. Context is assessed analytically. While decision making is rational (Stan Lester, 2010)
  • A novice is just learning the basics of a subject, unable to exercise discretionary judgment and has rigid adherence to taught rules or plans (Steve Flowers, 2012).
  • Rules (protocol)-based performance Direct supervision needed at all times. Unable to deal with complexity. Task seen in isolation (Khan & Ramachandran, 2012)
  • Operate by using context-free features and rules; Do not understand that rules are contextually based; context-free rules need to occasionally be violated given the context or situation presented; Do not assume responsibility for the consequences . Thus the desire to create a protocol or a set of concrete rules results; Follows rules (Rebecca West Burns, 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 (Rosenberg, 2012).


Advanced beginner as defined by Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1981, 1984, 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.

Advanced beginner definitions refined, rephrased or supplemented by others:

  • An advanced beginner is one who has coped with enough real situations to note (or to have them pointed out by a mentor) the recurrent meaningful aspects of situations. An advanced beginner needs help setting priorities since she/he operates on general guidelines and is only beginning to perceive recurrent meaningful patterns. The advanced beginner cannot reliably sort out what is most important in complex situations and will need help to prioritize (Patricia Benner,  1984, pp 13-34).
  • 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 (Eraut Michael, 1994).
  • Working knowledge of key aspects of practice; Straightforward tasks likely to be completed to an acceptable standard; Able to achieve some steps using own judgment, but supervision needed for overall task; Appreciates complex situations but only able to achieve partial resolution; Sees actions as a series of steps (Institute of Conservation, London, 2003)
  • Advanced beginners have developed the ability to distinguish between more and less characteristic features of a situation, although they still tend to rely on checklists (Gunderman, 2009).
  • At advanced beginner level, knowledge is treated in context but no recognition of relevance; Context is assessed analytically; While decision making is rational (Stan Lester, 2010)
  • 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 (Khan & Ramachandran, 2012)
  • The advanced beginner is beginning to connect relevant contexts to the rules and facts they are learning. Folks at this level may have no sense of practical priority. All aspects of work may be treated separately and will likely have equal importance (Steve Flowers,  2012).
  • Achieved after considerable experience; More sophisticated rules that are situational; Develops the idea that the idea of developing skill is a much larger conception  “Through practical experience in concrete situations with meaningful elements, which neither an instructor nor the learner can define in terms of objectively recognizable context-free features, the advanced beginner starts to recognize those elements when they are present (p.22).” The advanced beginner begins to ask the question – how? How does one (fill in the blank)?; Can set goals but can’t set them reasonably (Rebecca West Burns, 2012)


Competent as defined by Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1981, 1984, 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.

Competent definitions refined, rephrased or supplemented by others:

  • An advanced beginner is one who has coped with enough real situations to note (or to have them pointed out by a mentor) the recurrent meaningful aspects of situations. An advanced beginner needs help setting priorities since she/he operates on general guidelines and is only beginning to perceive recurrent meaningful patterns. The advanced beginner cannot reliably sort out what is most important in complex situations and will need help to prioritize (Patricia Benner,  1984, pp 13-34).
  • Coping with crowdedness; Now sees actions at least partially in terms of longer-term goals; Conscious, deliberate planning; Standardized and routinized procedures ( Eraut Michael, 1994)
  • Good working and background knowledge of area of practice; Fit for purpose, though may lack refinement; Able to achieve most tasks using own judgment; Copes with complex situations through deliberate analysis and planning; Sees actions at least partly in terms of longer-term goals (Institute of Conservation, London, 2003)
  • At competence level, 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 (P.A Alexander, 2003)
  • When learners achieve competence, they can think conceptually and develop strategic approaches in terms of long-term goals. Yet, in many situations, their approaches remain highly standardized and rule based (Gunderman, 2009).
  • At competent level, knowledge is treated in context and also there is recognition of relevance; Context is assessed analytically; While decision making is rational (Stan Lester, 2010)
  • A competent performer is able to select rules or perspectives appropriate to the situation, taking responsibility for approach (Steve Flowers, 2012).
  • 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 (Khan & Ramachandran, 2012)
  • More experience; Possesses a sense of importance and is able to prioritize behaviors based on levels of importance. Behavior is determined by importance and not by context-free rules or merely situational rules; Possess a hierarchical procedure for making decisions; Requires organization and the creation of a plan; Accepts responsibility for choices because they recognize they made choices; they are emotionally invested in their decision-making “The competent performer, on the other hand, after wrestling with the question of the choice of a plan, feels responsible for, and thus emotionally involved in, the product of his choice (p. 26).” Problem-solving indicates competence; Slow and detached reasoning (problem-solving); Makes decisions (Rebecca West Burns, 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 (Rosenberg, 2012).


As defined by 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.

Definitions refined, rephrased or supplemented by others:

  • Proficient is someone who perceives a situation as a whole rather than in terms of parts. With holistic understanding, decision-making is less labored since the professional has a perspective on which of the many attributes and aspects present are the important ones. The proficient performer considers fewer options and hones in on the accurate region of the problem (Patricia Benner, 1984, pp 13-34).
  • Proficient person 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 (Eraut Michael, 1994).
  • Depth of understanding of discipline and area of practice; Fully acceptable standard achieved routinely; Able to take full responsibility for own work (and that of others where applicable); Deals with complex situations holistically; decision-making more confident; Sees overall ‘picture’ and how individual actions fit within it (Institute of Conservation, London, 2003)
  • At proficiency and expertise stage, learners exhibit broad and deep topic/domain knowledge base; use deep processing strategies almost exclusively; high individual interest and engagement (P.A Alexander, 2003).
  • Proficient learners can distinguish between typical and atypical features of a case and tailor their approach to the particular features at hand (Gunderman, 2009).
  • Knowledge is treated in context and also there is recognition of relevance; Context is assessed holistically; While decision making is still rational (Stan Lester, 2010)
  • A proficient performer has experience making situational discriminations that enables recognition of problems and best approaches for solving the problems. At this stage, intuitive reactions replace reasoned responses (Steve Flowers, 2012).
  • 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 (Khan & Ramachandran, 2012)
  • Proficient person uses intuition based on enough past experience; Intuition is “…the product of deep situational involvement and recognition of similarity (p. 29).” Intuitive-based cognition coupled with detached decision-making. The proficient person recognizes intuitively but responds by more calculative decisions. Being proficient means attributing success to the calculative aspects of the success and ignoring the even more brilliant intuition that occurred first (Rebecca West Burns, 2012).


Expert as defined by 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.

Expertise definitions refined, rephrased or supplemented by others:

  • The expert professional is one who no longer relies on an analytical principle (rule, guideline, maxim) to connect an understanding of the situation to an appropriate action. With an extensive background of experience the expert has an intuitive grasp of the situation and focuses in on the accurate region of the problem without wasteful consideration of a larger range of unfruitful possibilities (Patricia Benner, 1984, pp 13-34).
  • 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 (Eraut Michael, 1994).
  • An expert is 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 (Hoffman, 1998).
  • Expert is someone who has authoritative knowledge of discipline and deep tacit understanding across area of practice; Excellence achieved with relative ease; Able to take responsibility for going beyond existing standards and creating own interpretations; Holistic grasp of complex situations, moves between intuitive and analytical approaches with ease; Sees overall ‘picture’ and alternative approaches; vision of what may be possible (Institute of Conservation, London, 2003).
  • At proficiency and expertise level, learner possesses broad and deep topic/domain knowledge base; Use deep processing strategies almost exclusively; High individual interest and engagement (P.A. Alexander, 2003)
  • Expert learners do not use rules and guidelines. Their problem solving is based on an intuitive grasp of relevant features and a conceptual understanding of underlying principles (Gunderma, 2009).
  • At expert level, knowledge is treated in context and also there is recognition of relevance; Context is assessed holistically; While decision making is now intuitive (Stan Lester, 2010)
  • The expert performer is able to see what needs to be achieved and how to achieve it. This level of performer is able to make more refined and subtle discriminations than a proficient performer, tailoring approach and method to each situation based on this level of skill (Steve Flowers, 2012).
  • 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 (Khan& Ramachandran, 2012).
  • Expert functions or responds as a result of “mature and practiced understanding”, Loss of awareness of intuition and decision-making – operates simply because he does; knowledge becomes tacit; “When things are proceeding normally, experts don’t solve problems and don’t make decisions; they do what normally works (pp. 30-31).” Experts “see” but sometimes don’t recognize that they “see”; Experts perform without reflecting on every behavior, but experts do reflect and will consider alternatives when presented with time and critical outcomes. When experts reflect, they engage in critical reflection of their own assumptions; They possess: “An immense library of distinguishable situations is built up on the basis of experience (p. 32).” Actions are unconscious operating out of intuition and tacit knowledge; performance is fluid; “But when time permits and much is at stake, detached deliberative rationality of the type described can enhance the performance of even the intuitive expert (p. 40).” (Rebecca West Burns, 2012).
  • Considering master and expert as one single stage, 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 (Rosenberg, 2012).


Mastery as defined by Dreyfus & Dreyfus (2001)

Based in in-depth interviews with Dreyfus brothers, Flyvberg (1990, 1991) argued that Dryfus’s model did not account for innovation and practical wisdom. He proposed a sixth level called “Innovation” to Dryfus’s model which was synonymous to the “mastery” stage in original model proposed by Dreyfus brothers in 1980. 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).

Mastery definitions refined, rephrased or supplemented by others:

  • 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, 1998).
  • In contrast to experts, masters have developed recognizable personal styles of practice, like the style of a great artist or composer. They welcome novelty as an opportunity to reexamine their assumptions and explore new ways of thinking (Gunderman, 2009).
  • The mastery performer has developed their own style, extending expertise within a domain with their own synthesis of tools and methods (Steve Flowers (2012).
  • 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 (Khan & Ramachandran,  2012).


Dreyfus (2008) added seventh stage of ‘practical wisdom’ in the original Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.  Steve Flowers (2012) summarizes this stage as “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.

My own view is that practical wisdom is ultimate goal of human race and every time we learn a new skill, we don’t necessarily look to reach this stage. Several times acquiring a new skill is driven by survival needs rather than intellectual thirst. From training standpoint, I don’t think this stage has any implication or application. Mastery level is still goal of some high end skill acquisition such as sports, martial arts and chess or other world class performances.

Issue with Dreyfus’s Model

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.

One issue which I noticed with this model is that it is derived from observation of the performance of experts, such as jet pilots and dancers, experts who are used to tackling direct problems. Its applicability to complex problem solving is questionable (Pena, 2010). It is believed that skills used to solve inverse problems are of a different nature than the skills used to solve direct problems. Dreyfus model does not directly deal with complex skills. However, it does refer to handling the ability to solve complex problems as progressive levels in towards the expertise.  Also, progression from competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery indicate a kind of confidence and increase in intuition. However in terms of behavioral components, it does not offer any demarcation. For a particular skill, the model does not specify milestones which clearly indicate attainment of a given stage.

What it means to Training Designers

Though there are few flaws in Dreyfus’s model and there were some arguments in regards to concept of stages in this model, the applicability in general to skill progression and relevance to training design cannot be designed. One key thing that stands out in this model is how proficiency and expertise are drastically different from other stages.

Organizations these days are aiming for “Proficiency” stage as their organizational training goals. The main reason is the quality of performance exhibited by a proficient employee which is characterized by  “reproducibility”,  “consistency” and “reliability” in the performance”. That’s what is needed in today’s changing business world. See my other post where I wrote the training design challenges when proficiency becomes organizational goal.

On the other hand, expertise stage, though looks appealing, it does take a long time to attain expertise. In organizational context, attaining expertise is even difficult given changing business needs, frequent changes in roles, dynamic environments and short shelf life of skills. Making an individual a specialist is probably more appropriate and feasible goal for organizations by honing skills of an individual in a relatively defined context or role.  Look at my other post where I indicated gaining specialization actually shorten path to expertise.

Nevertheless, when you design your training – first question to ask is – what level of performance is expected from the individual at the end of a training program?

What is your definition of competent, proficient, expert and master? Do share.

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


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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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