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A Phenomenology of Skill Acquisition

by Hubert L. Dreyfus, 1990 ... more

(c) Georg Lind
Last revision: Oct. 2006

Stages of Skill Acquisition

Stage 1: Novice

Normally, the instruction process begins with the instructor decomposing the task environment into context-free features which the beginner can recognize without benefit of experience. The beginner is then given rules for determining actions on the basis of these features, like a computer following a program.
The student automobile driver learns to recognize such interpretation-free features as speed (indicated by his speedometer). Timing of gear shifts is specified in terms of speed.

Stage 2: Advanced beginner

As the novice gains experience actually coping with real situations, he begins to note, or an instructor points out, perspicuous examples of meaningful additional components of the situation. After seeing a sufficient number of examples, the student learns to recognize them. Instructional maxims now can refer to these new situational aspects. We use the terms maxims and aspects here to differentiate this form of instruction from the first, where strict rules were given as to how to respond to context-free features. Since maxims are phrased in terms of aspects they already presuppose experience in the skill domain.

The advanced beginner driver uses (situational) engine sounds as well as (non-situational) speed. He learns the maxim: shift up when the motor sounds like it is racing and down when it sounds like it is straining. No number of words can take the place of a few choice examples of racing and straining sounds.

Stage 3: Competence

With increasing experience, the number of features and aspects to be taken into account becomes overwhelming. To cope with this information explosion, the performer learns to adopt a hierarchical view of decision-making. By first choosing a plan, goal or perspective which organizes the situation and by then examining only the small set of features and aspects that he has learned are relevant given that plan, the performer can simplify and improve his performance.

A competent driver leaving the freeway on a curved off-ramp may, after taking into account speed, surface condition, criticality of time, etc., decide he is going too fast. He then has to decide whether to let up on the accelerator, remove his foot altogether, or step on the brake. He is relieved when he gets through the curve without mishap and shaken if he begins to go into a skid.


In both of these cases, we find a common pattern: detached planning, conscious assessment of elements that are salient with respect to the plan, and analytical rule-guided choice of action, followed by an emotionally involved experience of the outcome. The experience is emotional because choosing a plan, goal or perspective is no simple matter for the competent performer. Nobody gives him any rules for how to choose a perspective, so he has to make up various rules which he then adopts or discards in various situations depending on how they work out. This procedure is frustrating, however, since each rule works on some occasions and fails on others, and no set of objective features and aspects correlates strongly with these successes and failures. Nonetheless the choice is unavoidable. Familiar situations begin to be accompanied by emotions such as hope, fear, etc., but the competent performer strives to suppress these feelings during his detached choice of perspective.

Stage 4: Proficiency

As soon as the competent performer stops reflecting on problematic situations as a detached observer, and stops looking for principles to guide his actions, the gripping, holistic experiences from the competent stage become the basis of the next advance in skill. Having experienced many emotion-laden situations, chosen plans in each, and having obtained vivid, emotional demonstrations of the adequacy or inadequacy of the plan, the performer involved in the world of the skill "notices," or "is struck by" a certain plan, goal or perspective. No longer is the spell of involvement broken by detached conscious planning.

Since there are generally far fewer "ways of seeing" than "ways of acting," after understanding without conscious effort what is going on, the proficient performer will still have to think about what to do. During this thinking, elements that present themselves as salient are assessed and combined by rule and maxim to produce decisions.
On the basis of prior experience, a proficient driver fearfully approaching a curve on a rainy day may sense that he is traveling too fast. Then, on the basis of such salient elements as visibility, angle of road bank, criticalness of time, etc., he decides whether to let up on the gas, take his foot off the gas or to step on the brake. (These factors were used by the competent driver to decide that he is speeding.)

Stage 5: Expertise

The proficient performer, immersed in the world of skillful activity, sees what needs to be done, but must decide how to do it. With enough experience with a variety of situations, all seen from the same perspective but requiring different tactical decisions, the proficient performer seems gradually to decompose this class of situations into subclasses, each of which share the same decision, single action, or tactic. This allows an immediate intuitive response to each situation.

The expert driver, generally without any attention, not only knows by feel and familiarity when an action such as slowing down is required; he knows how to perform the action without calculating and comparing alternatives. He shifts gears when appropriate with no awareness of his acts. On the off ramp his foot simply lifts off the accelerator. What must be done, simply is done.


It seems that beginners make judgments using strict rules and features, but that with talent and a great deal of involved experience the beginner develops into an expert who sees intuitively what to do without applying rules and making judgments at all. The intellectualist tradition has given an accurate description of the beginner and of the expert facing an unfamiliar situation, but normally an expert does not deliberate. He does not reason. He does not even act deliberately. He simply spontaneously does what has normally worked and, naturally, it normally works.

    Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1990). What is Moral Maturity? A Phenomenological Account of the Development of Ethical Expertise Revised paper, the Aron Gurwitsch Memorial. Lecture, at the 1989 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. ... more