Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

Have a resolution that you'll learn how to play an instrument this year? Want to master a new sport? Or just hoping to level-up your critical thinking? The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is a tool to help one understand the various stages of learning and what the different levels imply for how you should be practicing.

First created by brothers Stuart Dreyfus and Hubert Dreyfus in the 80s at the University of California, Berkeley, the five-stage model has gone on to become widely used, especially in the medical industry, for teaching complicated skill development.

Dreyfus model's five stages of skill acquisition

The Dreyfus developmental model of skill acquisition breaks down how we learn something new into a five-stage model. A hierarchy of mental functions further defines each stage.

dreyfus level

Five stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition Source.

Want to know how to move from novice to master? Let's break down the five-stage model of skill development using chess as an example.


So, you watched The Queen's Gambit, and you bought a chessboard because you want to learn chess. How best to start? Well, right now, you'd be at the 'novice' stage of skill acquisition. You'd probably read the introductory instructions that came with the chessboard or search for 'how to play chess' on Google.

At this skill level, when one sits down to play chess, they see the pieces on the board as individual pawns without context. The novice does not yet know how moving the pawn in front of their knight might affect their opponent's next move. This context-free state is called 'non-situational recollection.'

The bad news? If you're learning something new and complicated, you're going to be at this level for a while. Settle in.

The good news? Your only direction to go is up. Put in the time now, and someday you'll never believe you once didn't know the meaning of 'en passant.'


Now, the novice has completed hours (and hours) of practice with other chess players to become an advanced beginner at chess. Competence takes practice. One becomes competent when one can recognize patterns to enable or prevent common captures of individual chess pieces. The Dreyfus model 'situational recollection calls this.' 

This advanced beginner player still cannot recognize any broader strategy on their chessboard. Dreyfus defined this as 'decomposed recognition.' This state means that situations, where someone could pull off complicated plays from The Queen's Gambit are not going to be evident to that novice player yet.

So, if you're here in terms of skill development, you can expect to feel frustrated sometimes. You've gathered the context of all the pieces at play, but you're still able to be blindsided when it comes to complicated situations.


It's at a level of proficiency that someone might finally start feeling like a character from The Queen's Gambit, thanks to a phenomenon Dreyfus called, 'holistic recognition.' 

A proficient performer can understand complicated, grand chess plays and recognizes when they're able to put them into play (or when they need to bail and try something else). Their moves are not yet intuitive, so they still have to stop and think before each play, but they're getting closer every day.

If you're here in your skills acquisition, this is the time to really dig in. The only way you'll move up to an expert skill level is by practicing a lot.


Up to this point, decision-making has been done in an 'analytical' style according to the Dreyfus model. One thinks through their options for a move, chooses one, and makes that move. 

However, once someone reaches the 'expert' level, their decision-making mental function moves to 'intuitive.' Even if they don't recognize a strategy being performed by their opponent, they are intuitive enough to understand when there might be a larger scheme happening and can attempt to block them.


There isn't much of a difference in terms of knowledge gained between this level and expert in the Dreyfus model.

One important difference is that someone becomes a master when their awareness, which has been 'monitoring' up to this point, moves to 'absorbed.' Basically, we're talking about flow state.

Using the Dreyfus model to teach skill acquisition

When it comes to conveying complicated knowledge or skills (and measuring someone else's skill development level), the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition can be an excellent tool.

A detailed understanding of the stages through which skillful performance develops is essential if one is to design training programs and training materials to facilitate the acquisition of high-order skills. In any such endeavor, it is essential to identify at each stage what capacities the performer has acquired and which more sophisticated capacity he is then in a position to attain.

So, if you are trying to teach chess to someone else, how would you start? By explaining each piece and its function (novice). Once they're starting to seem like an advanced beginner, you'd explain common moves and mistakes made by players (competent). Level three (proficient) would be a focus on strategy and overarching plays. As for expert and master, well, you'd probably just be discussing how they can find more time in their day to play chess.

When is someone really an expert? Dreyfus model detractors

Teaching with the Dreyfus model in mind is exceedingly popular in nursing practices thanks to a popular book on the subject that specifically applies each stage of skill acquisition to 

Dr. Patricia Benner wrote a book, 'From Novice to Expert,' focused on nursing practices and how an outsider can estimate one's clinical judgment and development of expertise. She posits that each skill development stage needs to have tangible examples tied to how one behaves per skill level: how proficient are they in certain activities, what kind of problem-solving can they perform competently. One cannot go solely on how many years of experience another person has had, though it contributes to skill level. A study published by Carol L Carraccio (et al.) also backs up Benner's position of using the Dreyfus model to learn clinical nursing practice ('From the educational bench to the clinical bedside'). 

However, according to a study published by Adolfo Peña, the Dreyfus model – while adequate for some skill acquisition – cannot be adequate for all skill development and shouldn't be used in scientific research. He points out the issue of making skill acquisition linear. People can fall out of practice, or new methods or tools can be introduced that suddenly reduce someone who was once a master back to proficient. 

Peña also points to Dreyfus' assertions on explicit versus implicit (intuitive) knowledge:

Although the Dreyfus brothers recognize this division of knowledge, they believe that skills are exclusive instances of know-how or implicit knowledge: ‘you can ride a bicycle because you possess something called “know-how,” which you acquired from practice and sometimes painful experience’ (3, p. 16). The Dreyfus brothers assert that when we perform a skill, we basically execute implicit knowledge without a connection to explicit knowledge. They believe that skills are automatic dispositions that cannot be readily made explicit.

Peña asserts that it's explicit knowledge that makes a difference between one reaching proficient or expert, as in, an expert recognizes and can verbally assert reasons for their decision-making.

Be comfortable with not knowing.

Remember to let yourself be a beginner. Being a beginner means being willing to look like an idiot in front of others. Mastering any skill requires making mistakes at the beginning.

If you want to learn anything sophisticated, you're going to have to start at novice and work your way up. 

Of course, prior experience in learning similar skills helps (for example, someone fluent in Spanish might learn Italian faster than someone who has no prior experience with any romance language).

 But when you're feeling frustrated, remember that the only place to go is up. Keep at it – there's no place to go but up.

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