Expertise & Skill Acquisition

Jedi Master by Eren Arik (deviantArt)Jedi Master by Eren Arik (deviantArt)

The Making of a Master

A skilled performance is easily recognized because it is often displayed without apparent effort. The person who displays such performances is an expert who is skilled in the particular task. The individuals who have reached such high level of expertise have been found in occupations ranging from athletes, musicians, doctors, scientists, painters, and many others, are often honored as Masters.

Skill acquisition requires time and effort to repeat the targeted task repetitively to reach perfection (both accuracy and proficiency). It is a dynamic process that demands contribution from the body, the mind, and the spirit. Although there is no empirical research to measure how long it takes to become a Jedi Master, we can be sure that the process requires efforts and time – it takes years for one to truly be in control of the Force. You have probably heard of the common saying, ‘practice makes perfect.’ It is important to recognize that mere repetition (i.e., mindlessly repeating certain actions) do not guarantee progress towards mastery. Learning to improve is a big part of the equation for individuals seeking to transcend their current skill limitations.

Learning is “a process that results in a relatively consistent change in behavior or behavior potential and is based on experience” (Zimbardo & Gerrig, 1999, p. 227). Here are three characteristics of learning: (1) it is an internal process that cannot be seen directly and can only be inferred to have taken place based on observable behavior, (2) it occurs only with experience or practice, and (3) it is applied to situations in which changes in behavior are observed consistently over different occasions. Once learned, the skill is relatively permanent, and will remain with the person for some time – such as the ability to ride a bicycle or throw a Frisbee. Many work/play-related skills consists of well-coordinated executions between the mind and the body (i.e., cognitive + motor).

The order effects of learning stretch across several domains of research, include psychology, machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), cognitive modeling, and instructional design. This is a topic of interests not only to educational scientists, but also those who are interested in learning and performance studies with virtual environment. In order to know how best to design skill acquisition and expertise learning with virtual environments, it is imperative to first understand the orders of learning that will affect that performance. This is why the ability to trace what learners actually do within the virtual environment is an extremely important concept of performance assessment in virtual environment.

The best ordered presentation will not work “as intended” if the learner has gone about it in a wrong order – “as learners often do not follow the path laid out for them” [2]. Without an assessment framework like Information Trails that traces what people actually ‘do’ in virtual environment, there is no way to “see” the order they took while navigating the virtual environment. This explains why the prevalent Pretest-Posttest method that treats virtual environment training as Black Boxes do not work. We need new methods and metrics to better assess performance with virtual environments.

“The order in which material is presented can strongly influence what is learned, how fast performance increases, and sometimes even whether the material is learned at all. This is true for both skills and facts and remains true whether the material is presented by an instructor or explored alone by a learner.

The order effects are more pervasive and important than they have previously been treated, and it explores how learning order affects the final outcome of learning and how methods and findings from the range of cognate disciplines that study learning can be fruitfully combined to understand and improve learners’ performance.” (Ritter & Nerb, 2007) [1].

Expertise Through Deliberate Practice

Expertise is gained as an individual improves a particular skill consists of defined tasks and procedures. Examples of expertise can be seen in many physical and mental sports (e.g., soccer, chess), fine-motor skills (e.g., musical instrument, surgery), procedural tasks (e.g., flying an airplane, operating machinery), systematic thinking (e.g., medical diagnosis, troubleshooting), and many others. Research on expertise indicates that it requires approximately 10,000 hours (or 10 years) of deliberate practice to create a Master in any skill – be it playing an instrument, chess, or KungFu. Some skills, such as instrument playing, martial arts, and the way of the Jedi are best learned from a young age when the mind is easily focused and the body is flexible.

The skill acquisition process from Novice to Expert (or Padawan to Master, in Jedi parlance) occurs over a number of developmental stages. For Novices, skill execution lacks both accuracy and proficiency, but as they progress through the skill acquisition process, improvement will come along with much better performance. The improvement in accuracy and proficiency will gradually taper off as s/he approaches mastery. (The higher the levels, the harder the increase in improvement.) Like the purification of precious metals, individuals who seek to transcend to a higher level must first learn to temper his/her skills by refining their ‘movements’ or way of doing things. In fact, the change in the course of actions taken is both observable and measurable. Performance improvement can, therefore, be seen as a grand fine-tuning of the course of actions taken over time, with an end goal of (near) perfect execution with minimum effort (to reduce energy wastage).

Robin Wong has this to say about attaining technical efficiency in photography: “The only way to improve is to shoot again and again until you get it right. Do not stop from there, shoot again and again until you do not get it wrong anymore. That is how technical efficiency work, you don’t just stop when you get it, you only stop when you have already mastered it. Yet you still need consistent practice to maintain the level of mastery. Again, there is no short-cut.”

Notes About Experts “Breaking The Rules”

Interestingly, Masters often have difficulty accounting for what it is that they actually ‘do’ moment-by-moment because they are completely absorbed in the task. On the other hand, Novices often complain that Experts and Masters tend to disregard the rules on the book and seemingly make up new rules on a whim. Below is one example of experts breaking the rules on “how (not) to play an instrument.”


  1. F.E. Ritter,; J. Nerb; E. Lehtinen; & T. O’Shea. [Eds]. (2007). In order to learn: How the sequences of topics influences learning. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Dummer, P., & Ifenthaler, D. (2005). Planning and assessing navigation in model-centered learning environments: Why learners often do not follow the path laid out for them. In G. Chiazzese, M. Allegra, A. Chifari & S. Ottaviano (Eds.), Methods and Technologies for Learning (pp. 327-334). Southhampton: WIT Press.
  3. Tomporowski, P. D. (2003). The Psychology of Skills — A life-span approach. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.