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Mastery Demystified: How Does a Novice Develop Himself into Master in Any Domain?


How Do the Skills of a Novice Develop into Mastery?


In this article, the skill development and progression of a novice towards mastery is explained by four leading researchers on expertise.


The process of skill development that could explain how a novice develops mastery in certain specific skills, has attracted a great research focus for a long while. To demystify this, in an earlier post, “7 Phases of Skill Acquisition: Mastery and Beyond on Dreyfus’s Model” I expanded definitions and characteristics of 7 stages specified by Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986, 2001, 2008) model by combining perspectives and explanations from various thought leaders and researchers. Among those 7 stages, most commonly the five stages have become wide-spread in academic and professional literature. These stages are – Novice, Advanced Beginners, Competent, Proficient and Expert. Some researchers nomenclature these stages slightly differently but fundamentally with similar essence. Some of them also combined expert and master together as a pinnacle stage in skill acquisition. In another post, “7 Models That Explain How Novice Develops into an Expert”, I explained 7 different models that explain novice to expert transition, though all of those models reported different stages and described those characteristics differently. Among all those models, four models hold particular academic significance and business appeal. These models are – Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986, 2001, 2008), Hoffman (1998) Journeyman model, Alexandar (2003) Model of Acclimation of Proficiency Development and from business literature Rosenberg (2012) Beyond Competence Model.

In this article, I will describe 6 major stages of skill acquisition on novice to master transition as explained through these four models. The thoughts expressed in original researcher or thought leader’s own words verbatim where possible. Look for sources in the reference list.

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 starts 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 a 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, the 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 the 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. A 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 a 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 an intuitive grasp of situations based on his deep tacit understanding. One key aspect of this level is that individually 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 become automatic that even expert is not aware of it. Based on priori experience, they can even come up with a 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 the 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 on what should be an organizational training goal. Though expertise and mastery stage looks appealing, one needs to be conscious of 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 an expert level? Probably not many. Designing training and learning to accelerate the acquisition of expertise is still in its fancy. Though there are lots of research, 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 a 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 a different game plan and it might actually be difficult to keep moving toward mastery in an ever-changing dynamic world of business. Further definitions and measurements of mastery in the professional world are something which has not even seen the daylight.

Therefore I asserted in one post that most organizations need to make ‘proficiency’ stage as a 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 the 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 operate “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 an organizational context? 
Do you see there should be a ‘specialist level’ between proficient and expert?


Attri, RK (2017), ‘Mastery Demystified: How Does a Novice Develop Himself into Master in Any Domain?’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/novice-mastery-skill-development-progression/>.

protected for plagiarism


  1. Alexander, P. A. (2003). The Development of Expertise: The Journey From Acclimation to Proficiency. Educational Researcher, 32(8), 10-14. https://doi.dx.org/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://www.irafs.org/irafs_1/cd_irafs02/texts/dreyfus.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 https://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: https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/

Main image credit: Image Arcade / Livelifeunleashed.com

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Dr Raman K Attri

Hi!! I am Raman…

I am a performance scientist and a corporate learning leader working, writing, researching and speaking on speeding up learning, performance, expertise, and leadership. Follow me to the world of learning for the accelerated world.

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