The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

The Five Steps to Expert Learning

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition - The Five Steps to Expert Learning

© Veer
Elnur Amikishiyev

Find out the five stages that people go through as they learn new skills.

When you're in charge of developing people's skills, as all managers of people are, it's important that you determine the level of proficiency they need. It's also important that you help them learn, and that you monitor their progress systematically.

This is why the Dreyfus Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition is useful for training and development. It identifies five different stages that people go through as they learn new skills.

In this article, we'll examine each of the five stages, and we'll look at how you can use this model to develop your people more effectively.

About the Model

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition was developed in 1980 by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus through their research at the University of California, U.S.

It illustrates five stages of learning that people go through when they acquire new skills. As a person progress through the stages, his or her ability with the skill increases.

These stages are:

  1. Novice.
  2. Advanced Beginner.
  3. Competent.
  4. Proficient.
  5. Expert.

We've outlined the five stages below, and provided an example for each one.


We've used a training scenario in the examples for each stage. Bear in mind, however, that you can apply the model to all aspects of developing your people.

1. Novice

All people begin the learning process at the novice level. Here, they learn rudimentary information and basic rules to determine action. There's no context or past experience for them to refer to here, and they have no ability to make any judgments.

Because of this, novices may not feel any responsibility for their learning or their actions. They follow rules blindly, because "that's what they've been told to do."

Example: You're teaching a group of people how to use your organization's new payroll system. At the novice level, they know how to get into the system, and make basic entries.

At this level, however, they have no way of knowing what to do if something goes wrong, because the information they've learned has no context. If, for instance, the program doesn't open straight away, they won't be able to progress, because they won't understand how the program loads, or how to diagnose and fix a problem.

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They can only follow the exact steps that they've been taught thus far.

2. Advanced Beginner

At the Advanced Beginner level, people begin to apply the information they learned to real situations, and rules begin to make sense in different scenarios. This puts the information into context.

However, they still don't take any personal responsibility for what they're doing, because they're still following rules and instructions closely.

Example: Your trainees have become familiar with doing simple things in the payroll system, and they've learned to recognize the different sounds and screen alerts, which clue them in on any problems the system might have.

At this stage, however, they don't know enough to identify which problems are important, and which are minor and can be overlooked. They treat all problems with equal importance.

Also, if they make mistakes, the trainees won't feel that it's their fault - by their understanding, they still don't know enough about the system to avoid errors.

3. Competent

When people have reached competency, they might begin to feel overwhelmed by the amount of relevant information that they've learned. They begin to try to organize this information by developing routines, and by selecting which rules and tasks are most important to achieve their goals.

They can also start using their knowledge and skills to make deliberate plans.

What's more, they begin to get emotionally involved in their learning. They take responsibility for their mistakes, and when they apply their knowledge and skills correctly, they'll feel elated at their success.

Example: All of your trainees feel quite comfortable doing different tasks in the payroll system. They know the key tasks they'd like to master, and they're able to write their own learning plan to get there. They're beginning to understand how certain functions, such as the ability to send alerts to Accounting if they have a query, interact with the overall program.

As they work on basic troubleshooting exercises, however, they start to understand how much they still don't know. Some may feel dispirited and overwhelmed by how much they still need to learn.

4. Proficient

When people become proficient, "following the rules" in a mechanistic fashion becomes frustrating and tedious. So they might consider branching out and trying new things. However, it's likely that they'll continue to fall back on established rules and guidelines when they need to.

They'll start to rely on intuitive diagnosis, and the insight that they've gleaned from real world examples, and they can now also apply their skills to unique situations, using their own judgment.

At this stage, people will know what they want to achieve from their learning, but they won't know how to reach these objectives yet. They still have a wide variety of possible actions that they can take, and they still need time to consider each of these carefully.

Example: Your trainees can now navigate successfully around the payroll system, opening and working on several programs at once.

When a process doesn't work, they know how to analyze possible solutions, based on similar problems that they've worked through in the past. They get deeply involved in the task, and they can visualize how they want the program to work once they've solved the issue.

They still experience uncertainty when deciding on the best strategy to use when entering large amounts of data or handling a new process. No reaction or response is automatic at this stage. Instead, they consider every action carefully.

Although some people may want to try an innovative solution to fix the problem, many will still use the solution that they've already been taught.

5. Expert

At this final stage people can see what needs to be done, and they know exactly what it takes to do it. They won't make decisions consciously - they just know what to do.

They no longer rely on rules and guidelines to make decisions, trusting instead in their own knowledge and their ability to come up with a creative solution when required. Flow is often achieved by people at this stage.

Example: Your trainees have finished their training, and they've left the program feeling confident in their ability to use your organization's payroll system to handle time logs and expense reports efficiently.

When problems happen, they're now able to analyze each situation, and recognize whether or not they've encountered a similar situation in the past.

Much of the time, they intuitively know what to do, and they take action quickly.

Applying the Model

The Five-Stage Model of Skill Acquisition is useful for several reasons.

First, it helps you assess how much knowledge people have in particular skill areas. Each of the five stages has a specific set of behaviors that can be used to assess progress. This can help determine a person's level of knowledge, and identify whether they have further developmental needs.

The model is also useful for helping you think about how best to move your people to the "next level." For instance, if you know that a person is likely to feel overwhelmed and drained once she's reached proficiency, you can modify your training to accommodate this, perhaps offering more praise and encouragement at this stage.

The model is also valuable for determining how skilled you need your people to be.

For instance, in order for your team to perform non-core tasks, they might only need to be proficient, meaning that it would be a waste of resources to train them to the Expert stage.


You can also use the Conscious Competence Ladder to guide your people through different stages of learning. This provides a different but complimentary way of thinking about how people develop expertise.

Key Points

The Five-Stage Model of Skill Acquisition was created by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus. The model details the five stages of learning that people go through when they're learning new skills.

People begin at the Novice stage, in which they simply follow rules and instructions. Then, they progress to Advanced Beginner, in which they apply what they learned in the Novice stage to real situations.

The next learning stage is the Competent stage. Here, people can get overwhelmed with how much there is still left to learn. Then they move on to the Proficient stage, where they're able to prioritize tasks and take a broader view of the situation.

The last stage is Expert. Here they no longer rely on rules to make decisions, and they're be able to take action without thinking or analyzing.