This article describes 7 models from research to explain stages of a novice to expert transition and to guide curriculum to advance the learners to next level of expertise.
One of the challenge training and learning designers face is developing curriculum and strategies that are meant to advance the learners towards a higher level of expertise in skills learned. A 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 which attempt to explain 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 on 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 of continuous boundary-less phases rather than stages. For this post, I will stick to using words ‘stage’ or ‘phase’ interchangeably. In another post, “5 Perspectives from Research: Accelerating Unconscious Competence“, three models of ‘Unconcious Competence’ were explained: Robinsopn (1964) 4-stage unconscious competence model, Langvin’s variation of unconscious competence model, and Will Taylor (2007) 5-stage reflective competence model. 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 conscious to a less conscious form of practice. His model has only three stages of expertise:
Cognitive stage: Learner constantly and consciously interact with nature and mechanics of what is being done
Practice fixation stage: Multiple repetitions help to bring the steps in the long-term memory
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 “subconscious” use of skill whereas the previous model called this as an 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-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 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 the expert is on other ends of the scale and 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 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 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:
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
Coping with crowdedness
Now sees actions at least partially in terms of longer-term goals
Conscious, deliberate planning
Standardized and routinized procedures
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
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-Stage Model of Skill Acquisition
Based on in-depth interviews with 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 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.
Performance 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 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-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 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 a practical instructional environment.
Strategic processing (surface-level/ deep)
Interest (individual or situational)
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
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-Stage Model of Novice to Expert Transition
Hoffman (2006) defined the following proficiency scale which has characteristic similarity with the 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):
Naive: One who is totally ignorant of a domain
Novice: Literally, someone who is new – a probationary member. There has been some minimal exposure to the domain.
Initiate: Literally, a novice who has been through an initiation ceremony and has begun introductory instruction.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
Creativity: The capacity to solve novel problems.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 a simple representation of how learning and job performance integrates together and acts as a good guide to develop training for the appropriate audience.
What does it mean 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 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.
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