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Levels of Expertise

Levels of expertise develop with time and practice. There are three levels through which learners advance:

  • Novice

  • Intermediate

  • Expert

Novice learners are described as "unconscious incompetent" because they don't know what they don't know. They rely on a general knowledge base and try to solve problems intuitively. Though they lack specific factual knowledge and schema for knowledge processing, they are unencumbered by misconceptions and linear thinking, and may sometimes do surprisingly well at problem solving in novel situations. They can be quite creative. Novices need a willingness to try and not be discouraged by repeated failure.

Intermediate learners have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. They often exhibit variable performance in problem solving, at times performing worse than novices. Students at an intermediate level can be confused by information they have not yet fully organized in long-term memory. They move back and forth from "conscious incompetent" to "conscious competent". Intermediate learners need a willingness to try and not be discouraged by repeated failure.

Experts have abundant long-term memory in well-practiced schema and perform the best in problem solving. They have achieved the "unconscious competent" status. However, their expertise may apply to just a narrow domain. They may be overconfident in their abilities and less likely to self-correct or use all information. They may lack creativity.

Students who are novices need greater guidance through the thinking process. More advanced learners should transition to working on their own.


Patel VL, Yoskowitz NA, Arocha JF, Shortliffe EH. Cognitive and learning sciences in biomedical and health instructional design: A review with lessons for biomedical informatics education. J Biomed Inform. 2009;42(1):176-97.

Hendricson WD, Kleffner JH. Assessing and helping challenging students: Part One, Why do some students have difficulty learning? J Dent Educ. 2002 Jan;66(1):43-61.

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