5 Stages of Learning (Levels of Learning Ladder) –

exam

In educational psychology and sport coaching, there are 5 stages of learning or ‘levels of learning’.

These are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence.
  2. Conscious incompetence.
  3. Conscious competence.
  4. Unconscious competence.
  5. Conscious unconscious competence.

As a learner moves through the 5 stages, they develop increasing levels of competence and skill.

The 5 Stages of Learning

The 5 stages or ‘levels of learning’ are explained below:

a chart listing the levels of knowledge with explanations

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Unconscious incompetence is the stage of learning where the learner knows nothing.

They are both incompetent and do not know that they are incompetent at the topic. This is because the learner “doesn’t know what they don’t know”. We might also call this stage a state of ignorance.

Examples

  • A student just starting school who doesn’t realize the importance of schooling. They say “why do I have to learn this useless stuff?”
  • Consumers who are currently unaware that they need a product. Marketing departments have to find a way to educate consumers about why they need something before they will purchase it.

Emotions at this Stage

At this stage, the learner may feel:

  • Frustrated that they need to learn the topic.
  • Confused about the relevance of the topic to them.

Role of the Educator

In stage 1, the role of the educator is to help the student learn why the topic is worth studying. It is a good idea to spark interest and motivation to learn at this stage.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

At the conscious incompetence stage, the learner becomes aware of their own inabilities. This can be a motivating stage because the learner knows that there’s something they need to learn and they want to go about learning it.

However, the learner may also go through some frustration at this stage because they are trying to achieve a skill or level of knowledge that they cannot yet reach. The learner is aware of their own inadequacy.

Examples

  • A student who seeks out a coach or trainer because they know that they have a lot to learn, and cannot learn it alone.

Emotions at this Stage

  • Frustration at their incompetence at a task they’d like to learn.
  • Motivation to learn.
  • Unsure about how to go about learning the topic.

Role of the Educator

In stage 2, the educator works hard to help the learner develop their skills. They will provide a great deal of support and modelling to help the student until they can achieve a point where they can do the task on their own.

Teaching strategies like guided practice, direct instruction and modelling can help learners progress.

Sage 3: Conscious Competence

When a student achieves conscious competence, they are able to do a task on their own and without teacher support.

However, they still need to focus very hard on the task to minimize mistakes. The abilities are not yet habitual or built-into their reflexive memory.

Examples

  • A learner driver, who knows the theory behind driving and has a few hours under their belt. They still have some trouble changing gears and need to repeat under their breath the steps they need to follow when starting or turning off a car.

Emotions at this Stage

  • Hopefulness as the student starts seeing results.
  • Determination to get over the last few hurdles.
  • Awkwardness (at times) when needing to pause and think before progressing.

Role of the Educator

Ample practice and experience is necessary for reaching the upper stages of learning. As Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers, expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice!

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

By the time someone reaches unconscious competence, they are able to carry out a task without much effort. They have enough experience with it that it becomes second nature. We might say that they have reached mastery.

When people are unconsciously competent, we often refer to them as entering a flow state. The state of flow, as explained by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, involves the hyperfocus of someone who is ‘in the zone’ and going about their tasks without pausing to think.

The ‘unconsciousness’ of the learner’s skill at this level is often also called tacit knowledge. People with tacit knowledge often can’t explain how they do things: they can just do it!

Examples

  • Master musicians, playing elegant and flowing music.
  • An expert video game player who is expertly navigating around their gaming microworld.
  • A person who has been a practitioner for 20 years and can do tasks, but perhaps cannot explain how they can do them.

Role of the Educator

At this stage, the educator is completely removed from the situation because the student has reached mastery.

Stage 5: Conscious Unconscious Competence

The fifth stage has been added in recent years by educational psychologists. It is a stage that involves the ability to reflect upon the task and start dissecting how to educate others on how to complete the task. This is the educator’s stage.

This stage requires a return to consciousness of how they do a task. However, it is not consciousness based on uncertainty or lack of habituality (such as in Stage 3).

Instead, it is a stage in which the practitioner can critically reflect on how they do things so well, and unpick their strategies to teach them to others.

Examples

  • A practitioner who takes up a professorship at a university to begin teaching their skill to others.
  • A retired sportsperson who becomes a coach to future generations.

Role of the Educator

At this stage, the student becomes the teacher. Their job is to break down their skill into explainable chunks to educate others.

Origins of the Stages

The original 4 stages of the model of learning were created by Martin Broadwell in 1969. It has also been termed the four stages of competence and four levels of teaching. It was subsequently popularized by Noel Burch of Gordon Training International. The 4-stage model was also used extensively by Curtiss & Warren.

FAQ: Are there 4 or 5 Stages?

The first four stages of learning are the original stages in the model proposed by Martin Broadwell in 1969. Brodawell named it the four levels of teaching. It has subsequently been called the ‘levels of learning’ or ‘stages of learning’.

The fifth level of knowledge emerged much more recently. It is a stage that represents an ability to teach the content to new apprentices who are moving through the stages themselves.

Final Thoughts

The stages of learning are very useful for educators, coaches and even marketers. They can reflect on a learner’s or consumer’s stage and make adjustments to their teaching (or marketing) accordingly.

There are other learning stages models that you may like. Kort’s emotional learning spiral, for example, outlines four emotional stages that learners go through when they learn a task.

stages of learning
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

2 thoughts on “5 Stages of Learning (Levels of Learning Ladder) –”

  1. Excellent brief summary on the five stages/levels of learning! I particularly like your Examples, Emotions at this Stage, and Role of the Educator sections. Greatly appreciate the additional resources and am looking forward to learning more about Kort’s emotional learning spiral. I would add that while this tiered framework is an excellent conceptual, sequential model, the actual journey is more of a continuum of motion among the stages, and sometimes a blend of more than one stage. In the chart on the Five Stages/Levels of Learning, did you mean to say the explanation for stage two is “I know that I do don’t know,” or did you mean to say “I know that (or what) I don’t know”? In the Summary, I would reword “They can reflect on what stage a learner is at” to something less slang, such as “They can reflect on a learner’s or consumer’s stage…” FYI, it looks like a typo snuck through when you referenced Broadwell as “Brodwell” under “FAQ: Are there four or five stages?” (Hope this helps!) Thanks again!

    1. Thanks Larry – I’m glad you found it useful for your research.

      I agree that stage-based models in general (including ones like age-based stages of development) are simplistic in the idea that you move through a threshold and suddenly are in another stage. It’s messy, overlapping, and sometimes non-linear. I think that’s particularly true with unconscious competence. We can be unconsciously competent for a few weeks, then suddenly we start feeling very self-conscious and as if we’ve “slipped back a stage”. Baseballers who fall out of form is a good example of that.

      I appreciate the feedback on the typos. They’ve been fixed.

      Best,
      Chris

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