7 Models from Research Demystify Stages in Novice to Expert Transition

7 Models from Research Demystify Stages in Novice to Expert Transition

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7 expertise models explain novice to expert transition

This article describes 7 models from research to explain the stages of a novice to expert transition and to guide the curriculum to advance the learners to the next level of expertise.

One of the challenges training and learning designers face is developing curricula and strategies that are meant to advance the learners towards a higher level of expertise in skills learned. The journey of the learner, especially the novice to expert transition is a fascinating topic and training professionals love to create their own unconfirmed theories on such a topic. There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the novice to expert transition and attempt to explain how learners move from novice to expert.  In this post, I will summarize the most popular and most relevant models for novice to expert transition for training and learning designers. 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. I raised some points from different research studies in other posts: Mastery Demystified: How Do the Skills of a Novice Develop into Mastery? Though there are arguments against the existence of clear-cut stages, few studies confirmed that there is the occurrence of a level-like shift in some qualitative traits as notice moves to become an expert (Adelson 1984; Gaeth 1980; Phelps & Shanteau 1978; Spiro et al. 1989). I personally believe these are more continuous boundary-less phases rather than stages. For this post, I will stick to using the words ‘stage’ or ‘phase’ interchangeably. In another post, “5 Perspectives from Research: Accelerating Unconscious Competence“, three models of ‘Unconcious Competence’ were explained: Robinsopn’s (1964) 4-stage unconscious competence model, Langevin’s variation of unconscious competence model, and Will Taylor’s (2007) 5-stage reflective competence model. The remaining 7 models are explained – some are famous and some are relatively lesser-known.

Fitts (1986) 3-Stage Model for Novice to Expert Transition 

Fitts (1986) provided a similar model in skill development which supports progression from a conscious to a 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. The conscious mind can be used in monitoring and solving the problem.

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

Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986) 5-Stage Model for Novice to Expert Transition

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 this then brings about a change in performance. As a novice progresses, he acquires more and more situational understanding and is 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 the novice is on one side of the scale while the expert is on the other end of the scale and the individual demonstrates a 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 Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competence, Proficiency, and Expertise (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986). In the original model, they did not have “advanced beginners”. Over the years this has remained the most simplistic and most commonly used model of stages of skill progression due to its implication in the 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 is 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 the deep tacit understanding
  • Analytic approaches are used only in novel situations or when problems occur
  • The vision of what is possible

Dreyfus & Dreyfus (2001 and 2008) 7-Stage Model of Skill Acquisition

Based on in-depth interviews with the Dreyfus brothers, Flyvberg (1990, 1991) contested that Dreyfus’s model did not account for progressive innovation and practical wisdom. A subsequent work by Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2001) includes the 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 a 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 the seventh stage of practical wisdom in the original Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. These two additional stages are summarized in Table 2.

6. MasteryPerformance becomes a reflex in most common situations. Sets new standards for performance. Mostly deals with complex situations intuitively. Has a unique vision of what may be possibly related to the given task. Able to train other experts at the 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)

This model is explained in detail in another post: 7 Phases of Development of A Newbie To Become An Expert and Beyond.

Alexander (2003) 3-Stage Model of Novice to Expert Transition

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 the same thing. She postulated that knowledge (domain and topic), strategic processing (surface and deep), and interest (long-term and situational) are the three components that interact with each other as the individual progresses towards the expertise. The 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). The 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 situational interest which is short-term and relates to the immediate situation.

As cited by Baker (2006), Alexander states that 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 students’ progress and providing them with a practical instructional environment.

StagesKnowledge (domain/topic)Strategic processing (surface-level/ deep)Interest (individual or situational)
1. AcclimationLearners have a limited or fragmented domain and topic knowledgeChallenging tasks prompt to use surface-level strategic processingReliance on situational interest to maintain learner focus and performance
2. CompetenceLearners demonstrate a foundation body of knowledgeUse surface level strategies and develop deep-processing strategies to acquire knowledgeIndividual interest reduced reliance on situational interest
3. Proficiency / ExpertiseBroad and deep topic/domain knowledge baseUse deep processing strategies almost exclusivelyHigh individual interest and engagement

Hoffman (1998) 7-Stage Model of Novice to Expert Transition

Hoffman (2006) defined the following proficiency scale which has characteristic similarities with Dreyfus’s model with the addition of 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.


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.

Atherton (2013) 4-Stage Model of Novice to Expert Transition

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

  1. Competence: The ability to perform a requisite range of skills. Normally in a very narrow range of practice. Atherton offers an 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.

James Atherton's 4-stage model of novice to expert transition

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.

Rosenberg (2013) 4-Stage Model of Novice to Expert Transition

One of the latest contributions, though not very well-grounded in research, 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 an 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.

Rosenberg's model of novice to expert transition

 Image courtesy: Marc J. Rosenberg @ Marc My Words

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

What does it mean to you as a 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 the characteristics of each level as defined in that model. From a training design standpoint, a training program whose target is to produce competent learners will be drastically different from a training program whose goal is to develop the 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 a better training program.

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


Attri, RK (2017), ‘7 Models from Research Demystify Stages in Novice to Expert Transition’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://get-there-faster.com/blog/stages-in-novice-to-expert-transition/>.


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About Dr Raman K Attri

Dr Raman K Attri is the world’s #1 authority on the science of speed in professional and organizational settings. He is the world's only professional speaker speaking on the topic of the science of speed. He is the author of 23 multi-genre books. As a performance scientist, he has been recognized as one of the leading ‘Transformational Business Leaders’ of 2022. He was named as one of the ‘Global 500 Leaders’ of 2021, alongside stellar leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Gary Vee, Jim Kwik, and Jay Shetty, to name a few. He has made his space as a true accelerated learning guru, earning over 100 international credentials and degrees, including two doctorates in the learning domain, apart from some of the world’s highest certifications. A corporate business manager, he has been featured and cited in over 125 media features in TV/radio shows, magazines, podcasts, and forums.

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