Dreyfus Model: A Richer Understanding of Competency Building

The Dreyfus Model was developed by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus of the University of California, Berkeley. In a paper published in 1980, titled “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition” written for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, they wrote:

In acquiring a skill by means of instruction and experience, the student normally passes through five developmental stages which we designate novice, competence, proficiency, expertise and mastery. We argue, based on analysis of careful descriptions of skill acquisition, that as the student becomes skilled, he depends less on abstract principles and more on concrete experience. We systematize and illustrate the progressive changes in a performer’s ways of seeing his task environment. We conclude that any skill training procedure must be based on some model of skill acquisition, so that it can address, at each stage of training, the appropriate issues involved in facilitating advancement.

The Five Stages of the Dreyfus Model

To interpret this matrix, they wrote:

In reading the table, one should recall the following. The development depicted in row 1 first becomes situational when experience-based similarity recognition is achieved. This first occurs when the performer is able to recognize aspects. The development in row 2 first becomes holistic when the performer perceives similarity in terms of whole situations. This change is accompanied by the recognition of salience. In row 3, the performer refines whole situations to the point that unique decisions intuitively accompany situation recognition without need of conscious calculation. In row 4, the analytical mind, relieved of its monitoring role in producing and evaluating performance, is quieted so that the performer can become completely absorbed in his performance. The training implications of this taxonomy are obvious. The designer of training aids and courses must at all times be aware of the developmental stage of the student, so as to facilitate the trainee’s advancement to the next stage, and to avoid the temptation to introduce intricate and sophisticated aids which, although they might improve performance at a particular level, would impede advancement to a higher stage, or even encourage regression to a lower one.
There are many models of competencies and learning; the Dreyfus model is a useful model (along with other frameworks) that Black Belts and other performance improvement professionals should know so as to provide a richer appreciation for the challenges and nuances of “building competencies.”

Moving from Novice to Master: the Importance of Concrete Experiences

The Dreyfus model places a high level of importance on concrete experiences. They wrote:

 …in the account of skill acquisition which follows, concrete experience plays a paramount role. Rather than adopting the currently accepted Piagetian view that proficiency increases as one moves from the concrete to the abstract, we argue that skill in its minimal form is produced by following abstract formal rules, but that only experience with concrete cases can account for higher levels of performance.

Note: The Piagetian view they mention is in reference to the education theories of Jean Piaget which “focused attention on the idea of developmentally appropriate education—an education with environments, curriculum, materials, and instruction that are suitable for students in terms of their physical and cognitive abilities and their social and emotional needs.” (Elkind 1989)

Of great importance for those of us involved in designing and delivering adult education for the purposes of “building competencies,” is this point:

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.


Normally, the instruction process begins by decomposing the task environment into context-free features which the beginner can recognize without benefit of experience. We will call such features, which can be recognized without experience of particular situations in the instructional domain, non-situational. The beginner is then given rules for determining an action on the basis of these features. To improve, the novice needs monitoring, either by self-observation or instructional feedback, so as to bring his behavior more and more completely into conformity with the rule. A student, acquiring a second language, would be classified as novice when he had learned the phonetic rules for producing and recognizing what seemed to him meaningless noises which got specific results when produced on specific occasions. The novice chess player sees pieces as context-free elements and knows a few simple rules such as the rule for computing the material value of a position by adding up a material value he has learned to assign to each type of piece. The novice pilot knows how to read cockpit instruments and how to manipulate the controls in response to such features as instrument readings and context-free visual cues such as the angular displacement of the horizon.


Competence comes only after considerable experience actually coping with real situations in which the student notes or an instructor points out recurrent meaningful component patterns. These situational components, in terms of which a competent student understands his environment are no longer the context-free features used by the novice. We will call these recurrent patterns aspects…A language learner has achieved competence when he no longer hears and produces meaningless streams of sound, but rather perceives meaningful phrases which, when used on appropriate occasions, produce effects by virtue of these meanings. Some typical chess aspects are “weakness on the king’s side,” “over-extended,” and “unbalanced pawn structure,” and the competent player knows how to bring about and diminish these aspects, and which are to be sought and which avoided. The competent pilot can recognize such aspects as “high in the landing approach envelope,” “verging on stall conditions,” and “dangerous crab angle,” and knows guidelines for correcting such conditions.


Increased practice exposes the performer to a wide variety of typical whole situations…The language learner finally becomes able to combine the phrases he uses into whole sentences, with subordinate clauses, which enable him to describe whole situations, and to use language to request, demand, order etc. whole states of affairs. The chess player now sees aspects such as “unbalanced pawn structure” as either irrelevant or crucial to some overall strategic goal, such as “attack” or “play for a positional end-game advantage.” Given his particular long-range goal, he uses maxims to decide on moves which change the crucial aspects of his position and that of his opponent’s to his advantage.


The expert performer in a particular task environment has reached the final stage in the step-wise improvement of mental processing which we have been following. Up to this stage, the performer needed some sort of analytical principle (rule, guideline, maxim) to connect his grasp of the general situation to a specific action. Now his repertoire of experienced situations is so vast that normally each specific situation immediately dictates an intuitively appropriate action. After a great deal of experience actually using a language in everyday situations, the language learner discovers that without his consciously using any rules, situations simply elicit from him appropriate linguistic responses…Pilots report that at this stage, rather than being aware that they are flying an airplane, they have the experience that they are flying. The magnitude and importance of this change from analytic thought to intuitive response is evident to any expert pilot who has had the experience of suddenly reflecting upon what he is doing, with an accompanying degradation of his performance and the disconcerting realization that rather than simply flying, he is controlling a complicated mechanism.


Although, according to our model, there is no higher level of mental capacity than expertise, the expert is capable of experiencing moments of intense absorption in his work, during which his performance transcends even its usual high level…We note that this masterful performance only takes place when the expert, who no longer needs principles, 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.