Top Facts Everyone Should Know About Stages Of Learning

What does it mean?

When we learn a new skill, we start from a place of incompetence and eventually end up in a stage of mastery. This process takes us through different stages of learning, which we will further explore throughout this article.

Martin Broadwell, a management trainer, described the “four stages of teaching” in 1969 in his published work. It is also referred to as the four stages of competence. This describes how learners gather new skills and knowledge as they advance from incompetence to competence.

What are the stages?

Unconscious Incompetence

The first stage is unconscious incompetence, in which the learner does not know that they are lacking in a certain skill or knowledge area. They are, at this point, unaware of the importance of this skill or knowledge and so are in a state of ignorance.

During the unconscious incompetence stage, the learner has confidence that exceeds their abilities as they are unaware of their deficiency and may question the relevance or usefulness of this skill.

At this stage, a teacher must attempt to show the importance of learning by creating interest in this subject and motivating their student.

How long a learner stays in this stage depends on the presented relevance of the stimuli or skill and how much interest is promoted.

The learner may feel confused or frustrated during this stage, as they are unsure of the skill’s usefulness and why it should be important to them.


Many school students have been heard utter the phrase “what is the point in learning this?”, particularly about certain math formulas. Yet, they are ignorant of the importance of gaining this knowledge at this time.

This style is often used in marketing. It convinces the audience that they require a product they weren’t previously aware of.

Conscious Incompetence

During the second stage of learning, the learner is now aware that they lack specific skills and now have a desire to learn. In addition, they want to practice their new skill, which will require a great deal of concentration and attention.

They will often make mistakes, but this is a good step toward learning. However, because of this, they may lack confidence as they are now aware of their deficit.

The teacher must be prepared to provide a lot of guidance and support at this stage of learning. The learner will regularly seek this during the process. Giving examples and modeling behavior can assist the learner during the conscious incompetence stage.

The learner may feel quite frustrated during this stage as they are more aware of their lack of knowledge and attempt to improve their skills. Despite this, they will feel quite motivated.


An example of conscious incompetence is a child learning to ride a bike. They will likely be excited about learning the new skill. However, they will still require stabilizers and supervision while they are unsteady, and they may scrape their knees a few times.

Conscious Competence

At conscious competence, the learner has acquired the new skill but has not yet mastered it. This stage will likely involve testing their knowledge, support from instructors, and tools to help them improve their skills.

The learner can consistently perform their new skill but will still need to concentrate as they do so. They will be aware of their progress and how much they have learned up to this point. Hence this stage is called conscious competence. To perfect this skill, the learner must practice and gain more experience.

At this conscious competence stage, a teacher will only need to monitor the learner. They will likely not need to input much advice or support.

The learner may feel hopeful and determined at this stage as they notice significant improvements in their abilities. They might feel awkward, as they will not yet be completely proficient.


An example of conscious competence is a learner driver who is about to take a practical test. They will be reasonably competent and have the necessary skills and knowledge but must still concentrate on certain things. They might talk themselves through the steps of parallel parking.

Unconscious Competence

At the unconscious competence stage, the learner has mastered their new skill. The knowledge has become ingrained, and they can perform competently without concentrating on individual steps. They will know exactly what to do, but may not be able to articulate exactly how or why. This is known as tacit knowledge or second nature. It is the final stage of learning. They have formed habits and can act effortlessly, even thinking about something else simultaneously.

There is no need for the teacher to be involved, as the student has reached complete mastery. This will be unconscious competence, as they are unaware of how they know the skill.

The learner will feel more confident in their abilities.


An example of unconscious competence is a professional musician. They will be able to play their instrument with great ease and skill without needing to contemplate the actions they are performing.

Fifth Stage

Initially, there were only four stages of learning. However, a fifth stage was added to the stages of learning later on and is more related to teaching than learning. Now, the learner is conscious of their competence, to the point where they can impart knowledge and teach others. First, they must return to a conscious phase to reflect on and unpick their used strategies. Then, they can describe them in detail to a new learner. They must understand the previous four stages and how they should apply them in the skill learning process.


A professor or sports coach will likely be in the fifth stage of learning. They have acquired the relevant skills and knowledge and can now break down this information to teach others.

Three stages of the learning process

Cognitive Learning

Cognitive learning refers to the style used when a student starts the development of an overall understanding of a subject or skill. They should be engaged in the process and able to form connections between previous and new knowledge. In addition, this stage promotes problem-solving abilities.

The individual learning styles are; implicit, explicit, collaborative, cooperative, observational, and meaningful.

Implicit learning

This refers to knowledge we gain without realizing it. We pick up external cues from others and retain this information to build our own abilities. This style of learning can encourage the long retention of information. 

An example of implicit learning is a child learning to speak. They don’t know they are learning, but they are always picking up new information and skills from people around them.

Explicit learning

This refers to conscious learning. We seek out resources and instruction to improve our skills and abilities. We attempt things, learn by watching others, and ask for help. This style of learning can improve the ability to solve problems.

An example of explicit learning is a gymnast learning to backflip. They have the desire to learn and develop this skill by practicing and watching others.

Collaborative learning

This refers to a joint learning style between the teacher and their students. This learning style can improve communication, leadership skills, and positive interactions. Within this style, knowledge is shared and used in a collaborative approach.

An example of collaborative learning is a team coming up with a new design for their company. The leader shares knowledge and the team creates an idea together.

Cooperative learning

This also refers to a joint learning approach. However, the teacher now will join in, rather than simply providing information. This can help build confidence in all parties involved and encourage supportive teamwork.

An example of cooperative learning is a hockey team practicing their skills together with the help of their coach.

Observational learning

This refers to learning through imitation. This occurs a lot in early childhood and as we develop new skills. Observational learning can improve memory and interactions.

It can be a positive or negative learning style, depending on the action observed. For example, someone may learn to run away from dogs if they see others doing so, even if the dog is friendly.

An example of observational learning is Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment from the ’60s. Half of a group of children witnessed adults punching a Bobo doll, while the other half did not. The first group of children then began punching the doll, while this did not occur in the latter group.

Meaningful learning

This refers to learning that is well understood, and that can easily be applied to practice. It is often goal-orientated learning and learning from mistakes. It is the process of applying new information to old knowledge.

An example of meaningful learning is a student in a science lab mixing chemicals. They mix two chemicals that cause an explosion. Thus, they know not to remix these two chemicals.

Associative Learning

Associative learning styles can be used to modify responses by linking old and new knowledge. It is the process of decision-making and understanding the possible consequences of an action.

Classical Conditioning

This refers to the formation of involuntary associations between two actions. Undesirable characteristics can be modified using this style. 

For example, a bell rings each time a dog receives food. He begins to associate the bell ringing with food and will salivate at the sound of the bell.

Operant Conditioning

This refers to the formation of voluntary associations to create the desired consequence. It uses a reward or punishment system.

For example, a dog will sit at the command because he knows he will receive a treat.

Autonomous Learning

This style of learning requires no teacher or guidance and is self-driven. The autonomous learner can control their learning and make their own decisions. This gives them the freedom to plan and strategize their learning process without intervention from others. They will also be proficient at self-evaluating and reflecting on their process.