Four stages of learning skills

Posted by Greten on 22 Jun 2019 under Theories

In learning new skills, a learner passes through four stages: unconsciously unskilled, consciously unskilled, consciously skilled, and unconsciously skilled. You can design your instruction and elearning materials to make the progress of learning easier in each of these stages.

The four stages of learning model was developed by Noel Burch, an employee of Gordon Training International in the 1970s [2,3]. The four stages apply to learning skills such as typing, driving, operating a machine, or programming in a particular programming language. It can also apply to learning soft skills such as negotiation and customer service. It does not apply to learning information such as what do you call the chargeless particle in an atom or where is the Eiffel Tower located, even though these pieces of knowledge can be helpful in applying certain skills or learning them faster.

Unconsciously unskilled

This stage is also called unconscious incompetent[1]. The learner does not know what they need to know and what level of competency they need to know it. Learners in this stage of competence are sometimes very confident that they can do the task they are about to learn with ease. They observe someone doing a task that requires a skill or using a piece of equipment with so much ease that they believe they replicate it immediately.

A useful mnemonic of the stages of learning skills. It's a table with four cells. The two headers are unconscious (left) and conscious right. The rows are labeled as skilled (top) and unskilled (bottom). A circular arrow goes counterclockwise passing through the bottom left cell, bottom right cell, top right cell, and top left cell.For example, they watch someone speak in front of an audience that fills an auditorium. The speaker speaks fluently, moves gracefully, and holds the audience's attention. It seems that they are doing it very easily. However, when you also tried speaking publicly, you end up stunned with no idea of what to do.

To move the learner past this stage, you need to make them realize how much they need to learn. One way of doing it is to let them try: just be sure that no injury will happen to any of the participants, and no tools or equipment will be damaged.

In elearning, one of the slides or web pages can present the learning objectives to make the learners aware of what lies ahead. An optimal solution for mandatory group learning is to conduct SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis and training needs assessment. Use SWOT to know which members of your team need to learn a new skill. Use the training needs assessment to know if your organization has a legitimate need for the skill to be learned, and the resources to provide the training or learning experience. Some people in your organization may feel confident not because they are still in the unconsciously unskilled stage, but because they are already proficient with the skill you want them to learn.

Consciously unskilled

This stage is also called conscious incompetent [1]. In this stage, the learners realize how much they need to learn. This stage is very crucial. On the one hand, this gives the learners an idea of the processes they need to go through to learn the skills they want to learn. On the other hand, the sudden collapse of their confidence and being overwhelmed by what lies ahead in the learning process might make them decide to opt out.

Visiting back our example, the public speaking training, the moment you asked a learner to give it a try, and they end up stunned or delivered a speech that is subpar even to their self-assessment, that's the moment of being consciously unskilled.

In a learning process that involves the acquisition of several knowledge and skills, such as learning a programming language, showing the learners the syllabus moves them to consciously unskilled stage, as they can examine the syllabus for things that they already know, those that they know only a little, and those that are not familiar to them.

Aside from introducing the lessons, you should also encourage the learners to go through the learning experience. Provide challenges, activities, or exercises that are challenging enough to arouse the interests of learners, but easy enough such that they will not be discouraged to continue with the lessons. Challenges that are too difficult can stimulate negative emotions to learners such as fear and embarrassment [1], which they will then associate with the skill, making it more difficult to learn it.

In our public speaking example, one way to do it is to have the learner stand in front of his or her peers and answer a short open-ended question in one minute or less. If the lessons are conducted as elearning, ask the learners to answer an easy exercise that requires the use of higher-order thinking skills that is not scored. Your aim should be to put them at ease before going through the more difficult steps.

Consciously Skilled

The third stage is also called conscious competent [1]. Have you ever learned a new skill at work, but you are not yet sure if you are doing it right, so you have a manual beside you that you follow to the letter? Then your learning at that moment is at the consciously skilled level. This stage is very crucial, as it is where most of the learning process will take place. Learners keep on practicing with the aid of a manual, a written set of steps, guidance from an instructor [3], or a video that they can access anytime. The learners may make mistakes several times; even if they are not making mistakes, they still accomplish the task in a manner that is slow, careful, focused, and deliberate. You can think of conscious skilled as someone who can do the task with the conscious mind controlling every step.

In our public speaking example, this includes the learner making a speech while trying to recall what they just learned about posture, body language, tone of voice, and other concepts taught in public speaking lessons. They will tend to be slow, as they are trying to speak, recall these concepts, and apply them at the same time. They might commit a lot of mistakes, so it's important for the instructor to put them in a situation that will make mistakes less embarrassing, such as having other learners as their only audience.

In elearning, if you designed it such that the learners are blocked from accessing certain slides, videos, and other learning materials they already used, allow them free access to all past learning materials so they can always revisit them as they practice. You should also design your instruction such that at this stage, the learners have the means to track their progress [1].

Practice makes perfect. Eventually, the learners will memorize the materials such that they only need to access them from their mind. Subsequent practice will not even require them to recall what they just learned deliberately; the application of the skill will become increasingly automatic [2].

Unconsciously Skilled

The last stage of learning skills is also called unconscious competent [1]. Some ways of describing this stage are "naturally", "muscle memory", or "by instinct". The learners are not just trying to recall from their memory, they just apply the skill with minimal or with no conscious control. They can perform the task successfully without conscious effort and with greater confidence [2].

Learners may not notice when they transition from consciously skilled to unconsciously unskilled. In a company training, it's possible that are already considered done with the training and deployed to the floor or work area sometime during the consciously skilled stage, and only reached this stage after weeks or months of working. Going back to our public speaking example, the initial speaker speaks in a fluent and graceful manner because they already reached the unconsciously skilled stage, which is what the learners will reach after several hours of practice or even giving actual speeches with suboptimal performance.

Elearning is typically not involved in this stage. You can hasten the transition from consciously to unconsciously skilled by regularly providing learners with microlearning to reinforce what they already learned during the lesson; it will help them memorize what they constantly need to check from videos or documentation, which in turn makes it earlier for them to transition from accessing their memory to applying the skill automatically.

Unconsciously skilled is the end goal of everyone who is trying to learn new skills, even though it might be not achievable for some skills. For example, learning new programming skills will allow you to memorize all the commonly used commands and use them at will, but you still need to view the documentation available from time to time to review rarely used commands, or to check in case your codes did not work as expected.


  1. Adams L. (n.d.) "Learning a New Skill is Easier Said Than Done", Gordon Training International, retrieved 22 June 2019
  2. Mind Tools Content Team (n.d.) "The Conscious Competence Ladder", Mind Tools, retrieved 22 June 2019
  3. Toister J. (2014) "Instructional Design: Adult Learners: Understanding the four stages of learning",, retrieved 22 June 2019

Last updated on 22 Jun 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning