So you want to pick up a new hobby. Or maybe you want to learn a new skill to put on your resume. Or perhaps you want to learn a new language before your trip overseas. No matter what you want to learn or why you want to learn it, as you develop your new skill, you’ll go through a series of stages, ranging from novice to expert.
These stages were originally proposed in a 1980 study by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus. The two psychologists studied language learners, chess players, and pilots as they developed their skill. Dreyfus and Dreyfus came to the conclusion that there are five separate stages in skill development characterized by how one performs while in each stage.
Ultimately, knowing where you are in your skill development can help you cater to your strengths and weaknesses as a learner. This will help you to grow even faster in your chosen skillset.
The Novice operates within a set of specified rules and ‘if-then’ statements. As a novice, you typically stay within the realm of ‘if-then’ because you’re still learning the basics of your task. Although you might ask a lot of questions, your creative abilities are limited by your small amount of knowledge. You don’t need a lot of context to know what to do - you just need to know that if the red light comes on, press the yellow button. A language learner would be able to replicate basic dialogue, but would not have a handle on how to create his or her own dialogue. As a novice, it is important not to try to tackle tasks that are outside of your skillset. The best thing that you can do at this point is learn your basic rules to the best of your ability. Find rulebooks, online tutorials or articles, or talk to someone who knows your skill well.
As an advanced beginner, you will begin to look outside the basics you were given as a novice. You can tentatively apply your rules to new situations and begin to recognise patterns, but you have pretty limited autonomy at this point. Keep learning from books, tools, and mentors as you grow and strengthen your base, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you test your skills.
Beware the Expert Beginner
As an advanced beginner, you have two options. You can move onto the next level - Competent - or you can follow the schismatic path of Expert Beginner. Because the Advanced Beginner can’t see the big picture, it is easy for them to get confused and believe that they are at a higher skill level than they actually are. They think, having gotten the hang of the basic rules, that they have acquired an overall understanding. Instead of moving up the chain to become a proper expert, the Expert Beginner is perpetually stuck at this level. They do not continue to grow and push themselves because they believe themselves to have gone as far as they can. Take care not to fall into this trap.
After a while of learning the context of the rules and gaining an understanding of the environment, you arrive at the Competence level. People with ‘Competence’ begin to develop a recognition of patterns and can handle more isolated instances. You also begin to understand the big picture - or, what your skill means and why it’s important. During the competence stage, you can flex your wings a little bit. This is the time to ask questions and begin developing a depth of understanding about your topic. Test out different ways of doing things, but also be sure to take the time to understand in depth how to handle niche cases that aren’t covered in the world of basics. As you explore the boundaries of your rules and test out new situations, you’re bound to make a lot of mistakes at first. Don’t let this get you down, however! Keep your chin up and test those waters!
At the Proficient level, you are able to handle situations and see how the fit into the overall big picture. You can even tell what situations are more or less important in achieving that goal! A language learner is able to have full conversations and describe important things. A chess player can tell what pieces he needs to capture and what pieces would be alright to sacrifice. Once you are ‘proficient’, you can relax a little bit. Keep exposing yourself to your skill - continue conversing, playing, or learning new details - and try to absorb as much as you can. During this stage, you mostly learn from practicing. It just takes time to progress from ‘proficient’ to ‘expert’.
At the Expert stage, you’ve internalized the rules of your skill so well that your actions are nearly instinctual. You know your skill and you’re pretty darn good at it. Best of all, you have a deep understanding of the big picture. An expert language learner can use their new language in everyday life with ease. Continue to hone your skill as you use it in day to day life. At this point, you’ve reached the top of the chain and have access to moments of mastery. The Dreyfus study states, “this masterful performance only takes place when the expert… can cease to pay conscious attention to his performance and can let all the mental energy previously used in monitoring his performance go into producing almost instantaneously the appropriate perspective and its associated action” (14). While in the Mastery mindset, you work nearly entirely from intuition because you hold your rules for your skill at the core of your knowledge.