Stages of learning – what to watch out for

Stages of learning

Most of us are always learning in some way: to build our knowledge, master a new tech tool, or to boost our presentation skills for example. Beyond the workplace, we might be learning a new language or trying to improve our technique in our preferred sport.

As adults, we learn differently to young children, who seem to have endless curiosity and persistence when it comes to trying out new things (no matter how often they fall off their bike). By contrast, take a typical adult’s self-concept of being able to grasp most everyday skills and add the expectations of a typical workplace and you have a very different learning environment – one that’s worth exploring whether you’re the learner or you’re their manager.

The notion of progressive stages in learning isn’t new: some would say it goes back to Socrates and Confucius (they had a lot to say about learning: click the links to see quotes). More recently, the concept of stages of learning* is well known in employee development circles. Which stage we’re at depends on our levels of consciousness (or awareness) and competence.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
We’re simply unaware of the competency gap. This can become obvious: for example, not realising there’s a need for us to learn how to use a tech tool to build a presentation – until the moment arrives. Or having no awareness of the need to speak another language – until the transfer to another country happens. It could show up as being behind the times about new research and best practice.
What to watch out for: denial, brushing off the need to develop the new skill or catch up on current best practice and knowledge. Avoidance, finding fiddly workarounds or ducking the task completely.
How to make progress: get feedback, whether that’s via an online assessment or test, doing a SWOT analysis on your skills and their fit with your job role and discussing it with your manager. If you’re the manager, carefully observe the behaviour in question and give feedback. Be ready to support the person’s need for training.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
This can be an uncomfortable stage: we’re now acutely aware of our shortcomings. The whole thing may seem too daunting. This can be the point at which some people give up those language classes or dismiss a new endeavour as ‘not for me’.
What to watch out for: frustration, despondency and self-doubt; thoughts of quitting.
How to make progress: be patient, keep practising and learning. Chart your progress or note it in a journal and update it frequently. Buddy up with a fellow learner and support each other. Notice when it ‘just clicks’. If you’re managing someone at this stage, be patient and allow the person to take more time as they learn. Show you’ve noticed the effort being made and coach them to recognise their progress.

Stage 3: Conscious competence
If you can remember learning to drive and still hearing your instructor’s voice saying “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre” for some time after passing your test, that’s what this stage is about. Progress is being made at this stage, yet performance can seem effortful.
What to watch out for: hesitation, lack of confidence due to setbacks, overconfidence due to one good result. Developing bad habits.
How to make progress: seek opportunities and get feedback. Keep charting and making notes of your progress. Capture lessons learned that can be applied, e.g. creating a checklist and sharing it with your manager. If you’re managing someone at this stage, give them opportunities to practise, apply the learning and ensure they’re developing good habits. Don’t throw them in the deep end. Do match them up with a suitable mentor.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence
Using this skill is now ‘second nature’; it’s ‘automatic’, ‘don’t have to think about it, just do it’. There’s a great deal more comfort and confidence in completing the task.
What to watch out for: complacency, getting stuck in a rut, taking shortcuts and making assumptions, resisting change.
How to make progress: stay up to date with new tools, techniques and new ways of working. Apply your developed skills in different situations to avoid getting stuck in a rut. Keep reflecting and reviewing progress. If you’re managing someone at this stage, hand over more demanding tasks to provide a stretch and/or sponsor the person’s promotion prospects (and your own).

Is there a 5th stage? Some say so**. At this level of mastery, peer learning and review can aid reflective practice. Teaching and coaching others can broaden and deepen knowledge and skills.

*The four stages model of learning is now attributed to Martin M. Broadwell, based on an article from the late 1960s, although for a while in the 1970s US-based Gordon Training claimed a major contribution. It is not the work of Abraham Maslow, although some have tried to map the stages of learning onto Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

**The notion of a 5th stage is the work of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007. Thanks to Alan Chapman and his Businessballs website for the discussions and correct attributions.

You may find this post useful: ‘’How can you make your new learning stick?’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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