Novice: The First Stage on Your Journey

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    The novice stage - we've all experienced it. It's a time of stretching and rapid personal and professional growth. The stretching can be humbling and painful, as shortcomings in our performance are inevitable. If we learn from our mistakes, however, we will eventually grow to proficiency in our newly chosen role. This brings to mind a saying, "to live is to grow, and to grow is to change." if we are not experiencing any changes, then we are not growing. Growth and development are a necessary par

    Novice: The First  Stage on Your Journey

    Patricia Benner identifies five levels of skill acquisition and critical judgment in nursing practice: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Benner believes that experiential learning is essential for progression in the long trek from the novice stage to clinical expertise. In other words, the only way to grow in competency is by "doing" on the job. Book learning isn't enough – to eventually become an expert, we need to apply all that knowledge in the tumultuous practice environment.

    The novice stage is characterized by lack of experience in clinical situations. Performance is very limited and inflexible, strictly guided by rigid rules that are often indiscriminately applied. Novice nurses are task-oriented as they focus on a "to do" list, such as baths, vital signs, the head-to-toe assessment, and documentation. What is lacking is the element of critical thinking – the "whys" behind all the tasks, as well as proper prioritization, recognition of abnormalities, and determining effective interventions. This immaturity is not a bad thing as it is a necessary and expected phase in professional development. Nursing students just starting in the nursing program are at this stage.

    The advanced beginner, the next level, demonstrates minimally acceptable competence. This practitioner has undergone enough real-life situations to recognize recurring components of care. The patterning from prior similar experiences enables the advanced beginner to make basic clinical judgments and formulate principles to guide actions. Advanced beginners need mentoring and assistance in setting priorities. The new nurse graduate in his or her first job is at this stage.

    The competent nurse is able to efficiently organize, plan, coordinate multiple care tasks, and differentiate the most important aspects of care. Competency may occur after two to three years' experience in the same or similar practice environment. The nurse at this level is developing a long-term, holistic perspective.

    The proficient practitioner perceives the overall picture in clinical situations, rather than mere pieces or parts. At this level, analytic principles, long-term goals, and a holistic view of the client are used to guide performance. Proficiency brings speed, flexibility, and a deep understanding of the nuances in a given situation. Three to five years' worth of experience is required to develop proficiency.

    At the pinnacle of practice, the expert nurse demonstrates highly skilled proficiency, lightning quick analytic problem-solving ability, recognition of important subtleties that are nearly imperceptible to a novice or advanced beginner, and uncanny intuition in varied situations. The expert operates from an enormous well of experience, is fluid and flexible, and right "on target" in performance.

    The novice stage begins afresh each time we start something new in our nursing career. Starting again is challenging, to say the least. Being an expert in one area does not automatically transfer to another area. Our confidence and self-esteem suffer, as our extensive background of experience is no longer valid in a new practice paradigm. Many items must be "unlearnt" as we assimilate entirely new ways. Decisions require much more time and deliberation. We become dependent on others once again for wisdom and guidance.

    Seven years ago, my professional career took a completely new direction, as a I made the decision to become a nurse educator. The first year in this new role, especially, was difficult. There were many painful ordeals and obstacles to overcome. I stumbled and almost didn't make it through my second semester of teaching. However, I persevered and am now enjoying the fruits of a very rewarding career change.

    What advice, then, do I offer the novice? First, find a supportive environment in which to launch your nursing career or new nursing venture. This is vitally important. Then, pursue your dream like a bulldog with grit and determination. You must be persistent as you embark on this new road. Finally, show initiative. Take advantage of every learning opportunity, as these are the stepping-stones to expertise. Experiences, even the negative ones, are treasures, if we make the effort to learn from them.

    Enjoy this stage or season of your life, as many valuable memories are made. I wish you much success in your journey!


    Benner, P. (1984). from novice to expert. Excellence and power in clinical nursing practice. Menlo park, ca: addison-wesley nursing.

    Benner's stages of clinical competence

    Novice to expert: through the stages to success in nursing
    Last edit by Joe V on Jan 8, '15
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  3. by   ngiguere
    Thanks for reminding me of the stages. I just graduated and feel I definitely fall into the advanced beginner catgory! Helpful to see where I stand compared to where I have been and where I will be some day.
  4. by   VivaLasViejas
    This is extremely well-written and definitive, VickyRN. Kudos to you for making things so clear to this somewhere-between-proficient-and-expert nurse.
  5. by   jjjoy
    This is a nice model and reassuring to newbies. However, I know I sometimes got the sense from instructors that functioning at the novice stage was *never* appropriate for an RN student. There were admonitions from *day one* to avoid being task-oriented and emphasizing critical thinking... seeming to imply that we should be able to bypass the task-oriented stage completely. But critical thinking will only take you so far if you can't get the basics done in a somewhat timely manner (because you haven't mastered the task-side of nursing).

    It would seem to me that it could easily take *up to six months* of *regular* working on the *same* unit to move beyond being a task-oriented novice to an advanced beginner. But as a nursing student who is sharing an instructor, whose assigned nurse might be too hassled to let the student help, who is changing to a new unit and new patient population as quickly as every five weeks, whose time and attention is split between several different classes and assignments, not just the clinical experience... is it reasonable to expect them to be solidly advanced beginner in each of the areas that they rotate through?

    And colleagues of new grads sometimes seem to expect them to function at more of a proficient level than novice or even advanced beginner. Not-so-subtle eye-rolling and exasperated sighs in response to reasonable requests for advice and assistance from someone fresh out of school can be quite discouraging to a newbie who already doubts their competency.

    While schools and hospital education departments may theoretically embrace the concepts of novice-to-expert, "sink-or-swim" seems to be a common attitude out there. While I see some merit to that, I do think competent nursing care CAN be taught and learned and isn't just something that someone one either takes to immediately or will never really get. Of course, some work environments are really more supportive and some schools do provide a more graded approach in their expectations of students, building up step by step.

    Just thoughts in response to your reminder about this useful format for viewing professional development! : )
  6. by   starletRN
    jjjoy, I know exactly what you mean. Critical thinking was definitely emphasized and tasks were downplayed in my school as well. While I understand that in the long run critical thinking is important, as a new RN I would just like to be quicker at giving a bed bath. LOL
  7. by   VickyRN
    As educators, we facilitate the transition from the novice task-oriented stage to advanced beginner, in which the nurse has some rudimentary critical thinking skills. That's why we are always asking students those annoying "why" questions - along with emphasizing proper skill performance. Critical thinking is, after all, doing the right thing for the right reason. The "whys" are important. The student needs to know why a skill is performed in a certain way or if there is a better way.
  8. by   Akeeka
    This is a great read, I am currently studying to be a Navy Nurse and I am in my Freshman year. I have found peace and solace in your article. Thank You!