Nursing Practice in 1984, Benner introduced her theory.

Nursing is a unique profession in which the experience of the practitioner is the
most significant attribute to professional growth and knowledge development. Patricia
Benner’s theory, novice to expert, and the concept of reflective practice both validate this
idea. Benner utilized reflection within her study of the nursing profession in order to
depict the unique characteristics and knowledge embedded in the experience of the nurse.
Both the theory and the concept have been employed to enhance knowledge
development, professional growth and innovative changes within the nursing profession.
The purpose of this paper is to profoundly explore Benner’s theory: novice to
expert and the concept of reflective practice. The paper also depicts the unique and
similar attributes within the theory and concept as well as there utilization within nursing
practice, education, and leadership.

With the publication, From Novice to Expert: Promoting Excellence and Power in
Clinical Nursing Practice in 1984, Benner introduced her theory. The theory states that
overtime, nurses develop skills and knowledge through sound education and experience.
It differentiates practical, “knowing how”, and theoretical knowledge, “knowing that” in
nursing practice (Brykczynski, 2010a). Her theory was one of the first to characterize the
learning process of nursing. In 1989, working with Judith Wrubel, Benner extended her
theory to include the identification and integration of caring into the process of skill
acquisition (Sitzman & Eichelberger, 2011).
Description of Theory: Novice to Expert
Theory Elements
Patricia Benner’s novice to expert theory is a theory of skill acquisition. In this
theory, Benner poses that developing nursing skills through situational experience is a
prerequisite for expertise (Nursing Theories, 2011).
Levels of skill acquisition. Benner adapted the Dreyfus Model of Skill
Acquisition to nursing practice. The Dreyfus Model hypothesizes that in the development
of skill, an individual moves through five levels of proficiency: novice, advanced
beginner, competent, proficient, and expert (Dreyfus ; Dreyfus, 1980; as cited by
Benner, 1984). The model also asserts that as an individual progress through these levels,
changes are reflected in three aspects of skill performance. One, the individual moves
from dependency on abstract principles to the use of concrete experience. Secondly, there
is a change in the individuals perception of the situation, the situation is seen less as
separate, equal pieces and more as a whole where only certain pieces are pertinent.
Lastly, the individual changes from an observer of the situation to an involved performer.
Novice. Benner (1984) defines a novice as a beginner with no experience of the
situation in which they are expected to perform. In order for the novice nurse to develop
skills, the nurse must be put into new clinical situations. Benner also states that novice
nurses must be taught about a patient’s condition in objective and measureable
parameters. This is done so the novice can recognize features of the patient’s condition
without any situational experience. Novice practice is very limited and inflexible; they
utilize strict rules to govern practice because they have limited to no clinical experience.
Because of this inflexibility and rule based practice, the novice nurse cannot separate out
the relevant pieces of the situation; instead all pieces are seen as equal. They act in a
manner of “tell me what I need to do and I will do it” (Nursing Theories, 2011).
Advanced beginner. The next level of skill acquisition is the advanced beginner.
Benner describes the advance beginner as a nurse “who can demonstrate marginally
acceptable performance, one who have coped with enough real situations to note the
recurring meaningful situational components that are termed aspects of the situation” in
the Dreyfus Model (1984, pg. 22). Aspects are global characteristics that require prior
experience in actual situations for recognition. The advanced beginner develops
principles based on experience and begins the use of these experiences to guide their
actions (Nursing Theories, 2011).
Competent. A competent nurse is a nurse who has gained two to three years of
experience in the same work area or in similar day-to-day situations (Benner, 1984).
Benner states that competence develops when the nurse starts to see or plan his or her
actions in terms of long-range goals. The competent nurse, unlike the novice and
advanced beginner nurse, plans actions based on the pertinent aspects of the situation
instead of including all aspects. For the competent nurse “a plan establishes perspective,
and the plan is based on considerable conscious, abstract, analytic contemplation of the
problem” (Benner, 1984, pg. 26). It is the planning, that is characteristic of this skill
level; it is what helps the competent nurse to be more efficient and organized.
Proficient. The proficient nurse perceives situations as a whole instead of in
terms of aspects. According to Benner (1984), “perspective is not thought out but
“presents itself” based upon experience and recent events” (pg. 27). Perception is
fundamental to the proficient nurse. In this level, the nurse understands more holistically,
thus improving decision making (Nursing Theories, 2011). The proficient nurse has
learned from experience typical events to expect in a clinical situation and how plans
need to be modified to response to these events (Benner, 1984).
Expert. The next level in the skill acquisition model is the expert nurse.
According to Benner (1984), the expert nurse has a deep connection and understanding of
the situation. The expert no longer relies on analytic principle; instead the expert has an
intuitive grasp of situations that is utilized to determine actions. The performance of the
expert nurse is fluid, flexible, and highly proficient (Nursing Theories, 2011). Though the
expert nurse can make assumptions based on “hunches”, Benner points out that the expert
nurse still needs to be exceedingly skilled in the use of analytic tools, as these tools need
to be used in new situations or if the nurse gets the wrong “hunch” (1984).
Assumptions from Theorist
Benner conducted a study of clinical nurse practice in an attempt to learn and
depict the knowledge that is embedded in nursing practice. Nurses who were new to the
profession as well as nurses known for their expertise were interviewed, in an attempt to
determine and understand characteristic differences in clinical situations. “Not knowing
who and what we are about now will seriously impede what we want to become”
(Benner, 1984, pg xxi). In her work, Benner sought out to present new ways to view
nursing practice in order to provide understanding of the complexity and significance of
the nursing profession. Benner (1984) believed that the collection and record keeping of
expert nurses’ perceptions, recognition abilities, meanings and characteristics, and
outcomes would enable nurses to refine skills and advance practice. However, nurses
tend to be delinquent in documenting clinical learning. The lack of charting of nursing
practice and clinical observations robs nursing theory of the uniqueness of knowledge
that is found in expert clinical practice (Benner, 1984).
Also from her research, Benner made theoretical distinctions from theory itself;
there are two different types of knowledge, “knowing that” and “knowing how”. The
extension of practical knowledge (know-how) through theory based scientific
investigations (know-that) is necessary for knowledge development of the discipline
(Benner, 1984). Kuhn (1970) and Polanyi (1958), point out that we have many skills that
cannot be theoretically accounted for (as cited in Benner, 1984). This leads into the skill
level of the expert, who through experience has learned to allow their perceptions to lead
to confirming evidence.
Relation of Major Components
Benner states “expertise develops when the clinician tests and refines
propositions, hypotheses, and principle-based expectations in actual practice situations.
Experience is therefore a requisite for expertise” (1984, pg. 3). Expert and proficient
nurses need to be mentors for less experienced nurses. Utilizing descriptions of superior
clinical judgment from expert nurses offers new possibilities for less experienced nurses
and may facilitate their movement into a higher level of skill performance (Benner,
It is important to make note that expertise is situational, that is not all nurses are
experts in every situation (Brykczynski, 2010a). Experience in the same or similar
clinical situations is what separates the levels of skill acquisition. As a nurse moves into
higher levels of skill performance a more holistic approach is utilized in practice. The
expert nurse perceives the situation as a whole, uses past concrete situations, and moves
to the exact location of the problem without wasteful consideration of irrelevant options;
whereas less experienced nurses in a new situation must rely on conscious, deliberate,
analytic problem solving of an elemental nature (Benner, 1984).
Benner’s description of the levels of skill acquisition has been useful for ongoing
articulation of embedded knowledge in advanced nursing practice (Brykcznski, 2010a).
Description of Concept: Reflective Practice
Concept Definition
Reflective practice can be defined as a method of self-examination that requires
looking back over what has happened in practice in an attempt to improve or encourage
professional growth; it is an imaginative, creative, nonlinear, human act in which
practitioners recall their experience, think about it, and evaluate it (Ruth-Sahd, 2003).
Essential Components
Dewey introduced the concept of reflective practice in 1933. He believed that
“reflection is not only a rational, intellectual act but also an act that involves the whole
person, including his or her emotions” (Ruth-Sahd, 2003, pg 498). A critical-analysis of
data-based studies, found that reflective practice increased learning, enhanced selfesteem,
improved critical thinking and judgment, and promoted a greater self-awareness
thereby improving practice (Ruth-Sahd, 2003). Reflective thinking is an ongoing process
that encompasses a critical analysis of a practitioner’s actions, decision making and
thought process during and after a clinical situation.
Because reflection depends on experience, it can be restricted due to limited
clinical exposure of the practitioner (Heath, 1998). Past experiences advance the
reflective process.
Utilization of Concept
Reflective thinking is an analysis of feelings and knowledge that can help
facilitate learning from complex situations. Reflective practice helps nurses to create
meaning from their experience. Throughout clinical practice, nurses implement
interventions and decisions that impact patient care outcomes. It is the reflection on these
decisions that enables practitioner to develop professional growth. Many times it is the
reflection on previous events that helps nurses to plan actions on subsequent clinical
situations (Teekman, 2000).
Nursing educators can help facilitate their students learning through guided
reflective practice. Educators who encouraged students to openly communicate and
recognize keys to reflective practice more successfully prepared nursing students for the
complex world of nursing (Ruth-Sahd, 2003).
Relationship of Novice to Expert Theory and Reflective Practice
Common Attributes
Benner’s novice to expert theory and the concept of reflective practice share many
similar characteristics that contribute to the development of nursing knowledge and the
growth of the nursing profession.
Acquisition of skills. Benner’s theory articulates skill acquisition that is useful in
depicting the embedded knowledge in advanced nursing practice (Brykcznski, 2010b).
The theory asserts the concept that nurses “develop skills and understanding of patient
care over time through a sound educational base as well as a multitude of experiences”
(Nursing Theories, 2011, pg 1). Each level of skill acquisition builds on the previous one;
abstract principles are refined and expanded as the nurse gains clinical experience. By
exploring the role and decision making process of a proficient or expert nurse, less
experienced nurses can further develop their clinical reasoning and scope of practice
(Benner, 1984).
Reflective practice is also related to the acquisition of skill through clinical
experience. Limited experience from the practitioner will restrict the reflection process
(Heath, 1998). For a new nurse, guidance from an experienced practitioner is essential to
reflective practice (Johns, 1995). It is the experienced nurse who can facilitate learning in
a less experienced nurse through guided reflection. The use of reflective practice
enhances nurse’s critical thinking and decision making skills, which contributes to the
advancement of the nurse’s scope of practice.
Experience of practitioner. Situations that practitioners face in everyday practice
are unique to themselves and nursing (Johns, 1995). Reflective practice, as well as
Benner’s theory, novice to expert, highlights the importance of knowledge development
through actual clinical situations.
Nurses base actions on previous experiences rather than instrumental knowledge
(Johns, 1995). In her work, Benner analyzed practitioners’ descriptions of situational
performance and experiential learning in order to divulge the unique, richness that is
embedded in the practice of expert nurses (Benner, 1984). Benner theorized that
interpreting the descriptions of complex decision making in expert nurses’ clinical
experience would accentuate the unique knowledge embedded in the nursing practice.
The knowledge that is embedded in clinical expertise is central to the advancement of
nursing practice and the development of nursing science (Benner, 1984). Expertise in
nursing is developed through similar clinical situations; in the expert stage of skill
acquisition the nurse is able to recognize the importance of clinical situations with a high
degree of accuracy (Benner, Tanner, ; Chesla, 1997). Nurses must deepen their
understanding of the important knowledge that develops during clinical work.
Reflection is a method to access, make sense of and learn through the experience
of a nurse (Johns, 1995). The use of reflective practice is also based on previous
situational experiences of the nurse. Through reflection, the practitioner learns to view
and act differently in clinical situations. Every situation is an opportunity for learning.
Reflection ensures knowledge is more certain in future actions (John, 1995). Tanner
(2006) states what a nurse gains from reflecting on experience contributes to the ongoing
clinical knowledge development. Reflection requires a sense of responsibility, connecting
a nurse’s actions with outcomes.
Use of narratives. Nurses often know more than they can communicate;
attempting to express this knowledge through narratives helps the nurse to focus, shape,
influence, and communicate what is experienced (Johns, 1995). Benner, Tanner, and
Chesla (1997), state clinical reasoning and knowledge is better understood through
narratives. In her study of clinical nurse practice, Benner used narrative stories and
interviews from nurses to examine the thought process, decision making, and problem
solving skills related to the experience in clinical performance. Narrative thinking helps
turn experience into practical knowledge and understanding. Thinking through telling and
interpreting narrative stories, helps to make sense of experience through an interpretation
of human concerns and motives (Tanner, 2006). Knowledge can be produced through
dialogue from more experienced nurses who may have a different vantage point; this
limits tunnel vision and improves clinical knowledge (Benner et al., 1997).
The use of narratives is also an essential tool for reflective practice. Through
narratives: an in-depth review of clinical situations, the nurse’s response to the situation,
and intent to learn from decision making outcomes can be made (Tanner, 2006).
Reflection can be used as a tool to breakdown clinical experiences. Narrative reflection
helps to create a deep understanding of the nurse’s action. This fosters nurse’s decision
making abilities and problem solving techniques, helping to advance nursing practice.
Clinical judgment. Clinical judgment is an essential skill for nurses. Tanner
(2006) asserts that clinical judgment is influenced more by what the nurse brings to the
situation than the objective data about the situation at hand. Benner’s theory emphasizes
that clinical judgment is developed through experience. An expert nurse, no longer relies
on principles, rules or guidelines to connect to the situation and determine action
(Benner, 1984).
Clinical judgment is strengthened through the use of reflective practice. Nurses
are able to develop knowledge through the use of reflection and use this reflexively to
inform future actions (Johns, 1995). The concept can be used as a tool to focus on
contradictions between what was intended to be achieved in practice and the way the
nurse actually practiced, thus developing clinical judgment. Reflective practice offers an
ideal method to structure what takes place within a clinical situation. As Johns (1995)
states, reflection enables the practitioner to “develop increasing therapeutic competence,
sustaining effective work and ensuring the maintenance of high quality clinical practice”
(pg. 23).
Unique Attributes
The concept of reflective practice and the novice to expert theory share many
common attributes, but there are also several distinctive characteristics that contribute to
their differences.
Intuitive process. Intuition cannot be easily observed or explained (Johns, 1995).
In the theory novice to expert, Benner (1984) depicts the expert nurse as a practitioner
whose problem solving and decision making no longer relies on analytic rule-based
thinking but instead on intuitive, perceptual thinking. She highlights that an expert nurse,
because of substantial clinical experience, has an instinctive grasp on a situation and can
zero in on the problem. Intuition is characterized by immediate comprehension of the
clinical situation and the ability of the expert nurse to recognize patterns (Tanner, 2006).
Though intuitive skills can be developed through reflective practice by making
apparent the tactic knowledge within a specific clinical experience (Johns, 1995),
reflection is not an intuitive process (Perry, as cited in Nielsen, Stragnell, & Jester, 2007).
Reflection involves thoughtful consideration of an experience (Nielson et al., 2007). In
order for a novice to learn meaningful reflection, structure and guidance by an
experienced practitioner is needed.
Holistic perspective. Viewing the clinical situation as a whole is another essential
component to Benner’s theory. One of the aspects of skill performance that reflects
changes in the level of skill is the movement of thought from a compilation of equally
relevant bits, to an increased complex whole in which only certain parts are relevant
(Benner, 1984). A holistic perspective provides details of situational context that help
guide interpretation (Brykcznski, 2010b). Benner (1984) asserts that holistic
understanding of situational experience improves decision making.
On the other hand, reflective practice often breaks down clinical situations to
reflect specifically on key issues. Johns (1995) states a reflection starts with the
description of the experience from which key issues within the experience can be focused
on for reflection; there is always a movement from the whole to its parts.
Analytic thinking. Analytic thinking is necessary in all levels of skill acquisition.
Although Benner’s work emphasized the knowledge development obtained through
experience, she also maintains the importance of analytic thinking in practice. Tanner
(2006) points out that analytic process is used when one lacks the necessary essential
knowledge; when there is a mismatch between what is expected and what happens, as
well as when there are multiple options. At times, the only way to problem solve is
through analytical thinking (Benner, 1984). Analytic tools are the back bone for clinical
decision making. These tools are embedded in expert nurses, enabling them to transition
into the use of an intuitive process.
Reflection on the other hand does not rely on analytic thinking. It is a process of
reflecting on action. Reflection is a tool to examine the choices that were made in a
clinical situation and the outcomes of those choices. “Unlike universal, static, and context
free nature of analytic knowledge, reflective knowledge is particular, dynamic, and
context bound” (Johns, 1995, pg 24).
Self-awareness. Reflective practice builds self-awareness through the reflection
on one’s decision making in clinical practice. By promoting greater self-awareness, the
nurse will improve their practice by enhancing self-esteem and critical thinking (RuthSahd,
2003). Therefore, one can assert through more experiences, the nurse will develop
a higher level of learning and become more aware of one self in practice.
This differs in the development of experience in Benner’s theory. For the expert
nurse, experience has developed a deep understanding of clinical situations (Nursing

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Theories, 2011); the nurse embodies an intuitive thinking process. As the nurse develops
skill they become less aware of themselves, and instead perceive the situation as a whole.
Application of Benner’s Novice to Expert Theory and Reflective Practice
Benner’s Novice to Expert Theory
The novice to expert theory has provided a highly valued framework for advanced
development of the nursing profession. This philosophy has been a foundation in
practice, education, and leadership development in the nursing profession.
Application to practice. Benner’s development of the novice to expert theory has
been used to guide nurse practice and create innovative changes to the profession
(Alligood, 2010). Benner’s philosophical view of nursing has transformed the view of the
nursing practice. The emphasis on the nature of nursing practice, specifically how
knowledge of practice is acquired and developed overtime has been utilized in
developing practice models, advances in nursing research, as well as orientation and
preceptor programs in acute care settings as well as non-acute settings world-wide
(Alligood, 2010). Benner’s work has been used extensively as rationale for career
development and continuing education of nurses. It “focuses on developing and
understanding perceptual acuity, clinical judgment, skilled know-how, ethical
comportment, and ongoing experiential learning” (Brykcznski, 2010b, pg 141). The
theory has helped to create foundations for building and improving skills of the primary
care nurse through examining the acquisition of nurse’s experience (Fennig, Bender,
Colby, &Werner, 2005,).
An example of the use of Benner’s theory in practice is in the work of Meretoja,
Isoaho, and Leino-Kilpi. Meretoja et al. used Benner’s theory to develop a nurse

competency scale. Meretoja et al. (2004) found that the development of a competency
scale based on Benner’s theory would help to identify areas for nurses to improve
professional development and educational needs. The scale was also used to make sure
nurse competencies were put to the best possible use in patient care. Often Benner’s
theory can be used to guide patient care to improve optimal outcomes through
development of nursing practice.
Benner’s model of skill acquisition can be used to help define and measure expert
practice (Haag-Heitman, 2008). Understanding nurse expert factors helps to foster
clinical staff development.
Application to leadership. Benner’s novice to expert theory focuses on the
embodied knowledge that is intuitively found and displayed in the work of the expert
nurse. Expert nurse development must include risk taking, deliberate practice, social
models and mentors, and external rewards; these factors are influential in nursing
leadership for skill development and expert performance and learning (Haag-Heitman,
2008). The role of the expert nurse helps to stimulate less experienced nurses to interpret
situations differently and perform more effectively and efficiently. Expert nurses are
leaders in the profession who are self directed involved performers who continually strive
to improve and make breakthroughs in their performance and the nursing profession
(Haag-Heitman, 2008).
Application to education. Benner’s concepts regarding the performance
characteristics and learning needs of nurses with varying levels of clinical competency
can be incorporated into nursing education. Valid and reliable methods of identifying the
developmental stage of nurses are important when developing and implementing teaching

and learning strategies (Haag-Heitman, 2008). Understanding the level of skill and
competency of the learner can better prepare the educator to facilitate learning. Fennig et
al. (2005) state the learner will respond to different cues based on levels of practice and
years of experience.
Benner’s theory of novice to expert provides a framework for the development of
competencies in nursing education. However, she has “critiqued the concept of
competency-based testing by contrasting it with the complexity of proficiency and expert
stages described in the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition”; Benner believed
competency based testing was limited to the less situational, less interactive areas of
patient care (as cited in Brykczynski, 2010a, pg 150).
In addition, several nursing schools have used Benner’s philosophy of novice to
expert skill acquisition to develop a structure for nursing curricula (Brykcznski, 2010b).
Reflective Practice
Reflective practice is a tool that can be used to bridge the gap between theory and
practice (Sigma Theta Tau International STTI, 2005). Reflection can change conceptual
perspectives. Enhancements in nursing practice, education, and leadership have been
successful through the application of reflective practice.
Application to practice. “Reflection is an essential skill implicit in professional
nursing practice” (STTI, 2005, pg 6). In nursing, reflective practice can be used to
reexamine an experience in an effort to understand and plan how to better act in a similar
situation in the future. (Beam, O’Brien, & Neil, 2010). Tanner (2006) believed that
reflection is critical for improvement of clinical reasoning and development of clinical
knowledge. Reflective practice has the potential to improve implementation of advanced

nursing skills. Beam et al (2010) found that debriefing through reflective practice helps
nurses to manage stressors and emotions that are triggered by demanding situations thus
improving nursing practice. Because reflection gives insight into practice, nurses can
identify areas of strength and areas that need further development. Self assessment and
reflection allows a nurse to consider their practice within their own environment and can
assist them to maintain and improve their practice (Meretoja et al., 2004). Reflective
practice enhances a nurse’s critical thinking and judgment based on experience and prior
knowledge and ultimately enhances patient care (Ruth-Sahd, 2003).
Application to leadership. Benner (1984) provided the groundwork for reflecting
on nursing practice in terms of developing expertise of nurses in action. Effective nursing
practice and leadership are “grounded in the complexity of human relationships and
therefore require systematic and careful thinking in order to achieve successful
outcomes” (STTI, 2005, pg. 6). Reflective practice enhances the leadership capabilities
of nurses through examination of their practice. Emden and Reid, found that reflective
practice helps to advance nursing theories at a conceptual level which leads to changes at
a professional, social and political level (as cited in STTI, 2005, pg. 8).
Like Benner’s novice to expert theory, reflection is better developed through
experience. It is the experienced practitioner that can facilitate reflection between
professionals to enable development of nursing skills. Reflective practice through
guidance from an experienced nurse can enable the development of a practitioner’s
therapeutic potential to make a qualitative difference to peoples’ lives, and in doing so,
enhance the societal value of nursing (Johns, 1995).

Application to education. Dewey states, “reflective thinking alone is educative”
(as cited in Lasater & Nielsen, 2009, pg. 40). Reflective practice is an essential tool to
nursing education that is extensively used in continuing education and nursing schools.
Reflection helps to identify learning needs and styles at different levels of skill
acquisition (Benner, 2004), especially situations that are ill defined, multilayered and
complex (Lasater & Nielsen, 2009).
Reflective journaling and guided reflection is a strategy used in clinical education
to gain insight into students’ clinical thinking (Lasater ; Nielson, 2009). Reflection helps
nurses and student nurses to examine and explore clinical situations to assist in their
development and confidence in critical thinking and judgment (Nielsen, Stragnell, ;
Jester, 2007). Reflection through clinical narratives is an approach to “promote both
individual and collective experiential learning and synthesis of knowledge in real-world
situations” (Haag-Heitman, 2008, pg. 210).
Future Research
In Benner’s novice to expert theory there is a strong emphasis on the expert nurse:
the knowledge embedded into practice and the intuitive process that expert nurses utilize
in practice. There is substantial research that supports the advantages of an expert nurse
in clinical practice, but little is known in regards to what conditions foster expert
development (Haag-Heitman, 2008). How can expert nursing be measured? What are
methods to facilitate a nurse into the level of expertise? What are the connections
between different levels of skill acquisition, nursing outcomes, and patient quality of
care? In order to more effectively understand the knowledge embedded in expert nurses
and to utilize this knowledge to advance the nursing profession, future research is needed
to address some of these limitations.
Practical knowledge is essential to knowledge development and professional
growth of nursing. Reflection in practice is a tool that can be used by nurses to find
deeper meaning within practical experience as a means to advance practice as well as to
enhance one’s skill level. Every clinical situation is an opportunity for learning. Through
reflection and experience, a nurse can achieve a profound understanding of themselves
and the practice of nursing and ultimately improve patient care outcomes.
From a nurse educator perspective, both the novice to expert theory and reflective
practice can be substantially advantageous in teaching and learning strategies. Guided
reflection can foster students knowledge development, confidence, and self-awareness
which in turn will help to advance there level of skill acquisition. Thus understanding the
skill level of the student is essential to facilitate successful learning.


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