What are learning stages? (Types, importance and affects)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Learning is an essential part of thorough professional development and self-improvement. Developing new skills and knowledge requires you to progress through learning stages, which helps build your proficiencies. Therefore, understanding the learning stages can help you grow as a professional. In this article, we explain what learning stages are, how they can affect the ways you learn and why learning stages are important.

What are learning stages?

Learning stages are levels of proficiency you have on a certain topic. They're a recognised point in an individual's professional development towards a particular trait or goal. These points help measure your progress and can also help you monitor and improve the learning process in the future. It's important to remember that these stages are a broad description and different people progress at their own paces. Professionals may also progress through the stages in a different order, while some need help at each stage and others can work independently.

Understanding these stages is therefore also important for identifying how far along your learning journey is, and this can help you make the learning process itself more efficient. When thinking about your stages of learning, consider your goals and mission for learning a subject and how it might help in the future.

5 key stages of learning

There are five key learning stages you can consider when wanting to gain knowledge and apply it at work. Here's a list to help you understand the different stages and what each one entails:

1. Unconscious incompetence

At this point in the process, a learner has no competence surrounding the topic or skill in question. Since they're still new to it, they're unaware of what it's going to entail and therefore also unaware of their lack of competence in the skill or knowledge. This is based on the premise that you require some understanding of the skill to comprehend how little of it you know. For instance, if you've never learned how to use spreadsheet software, then it's hard to know how much knowledge or skills you actually lack.

This is why most learning programmes contain an introduction. These introductory materials often provide an overview of the work learners can expect, including skills they can expect to learn, new knowledge and any projects they're going to complete. This helps to overcome unconscious incompetence by showing a learner what they don't know, and by extension, what they're going to know once they've proceeded to the appropriate stages. This also helps manage the learner's expectations and allows them to begin asking informed and relevant questions.

2. Conscious incompetence

Once you've introduced a learner to the various skills and topics they're going to learn, they begin to understand what's necessary to master the material. Although they don't yet possess these skills and knowledge, they can begin to appreciate the expertise of their teacher. This is very important in a professional setting, as it means that a learner can begin to understand their learning process in the context of their work and expected responsibilities. Understanding this can also be a great incentive, as the learner understands the connection between their own professional development and success, and the learning in question.

Many individuals may actually begin their learning process in this step. This is especially likely when the individual has voluntarily sought the learning experience. They may have become aware of their own incompetence by interacting with someone who has more skills than them, which can encourage them to seek learning opportunities. Individuals who begin their learning journey at this second stage are also more likely to be motivated and enthusiastic, as they've already demonstrated a willingness to learn. This is in contrast to someone who remains at stage one, as these individuals still require incentivisation and motivation.

Related: Types of employee training programmes (with benefits)

3. Conscious competence

After going through some learning materials and acquiring new skills, you become aware of the new competencies that you've developed. This competence can come in many forms, such as understanding theoretical concepts and their applications, acquiring demonstrable skills and completing new assignments that prove your ability. Once you develop some conscious competence, you may be ready to implement your new skills in the workplace. This could be educational, such as training, or proper work with new skills.

It's important to understand the difference between this and other stages, especially the previous one. Once you've gained some knowledge and skills, it's easy to assume that you either know more than you think or less than you think. This is because even though you're conscious of some competence, you've yet to master your new skills. Consequently, your ability to self assess is still limited and you can benefit from continued guidance and feedback. Attendance becomes important during this stage, because some learners may believe they've acquired all the necessary skills prematurely and attend less frequently.

Related: 12 key areas of development at work (plus helpful tips)

4. Unconscious competence

Unconscious competence is somewhat rarer and is the situation in which an individual is so adept at a specific role or task that they don't realise they're doing it. In this scenario, the skill has become such an integral part of the learner that they've ceased to require conscious effort to demonstrate it. A simple example of this is how you use muscle memory to tie your shoelaces. Once you've learned how to do it as a child, tying your shoes no longer requires any thought or consideration, as it's become completely unconscious.

The only potential challenge with unconscious competence is if you reach this stage and want to mentor someone else. If you acquire the skill unconsciously, it can be more difficult to explain it to someone else. This is because learning is a conscious process, and if you're going to teach others, it's important to know how to communicate your unconscious processes to others. For instance, a person who grew up speaking English and never learned another language may struggle to teach English to someone else. This is because it's their native language and they never had to learn it consciously.

Related: 15 types of mentor qualities (plus example questions)

5. Consolidation

The fifth stage requires you to become conscious of your unconscious competence. In some ways, it can feel like learning all over again from the beginning. The example of the native English speaker trying to teach others is a good way of demonstrating this. Although they're fluent in English, they acquired it naturally as a child. Conversely, a student whom they're trying to teach requires conscious effort and, therefore, learns differently. To become an effective teacher, the English speaker requires a conscious understanding of their unconscious competency in English.

For instance, the English speaker probably knows which adjectives to use when describing the quantity, such as 'many', 'a lot' and 'few'. A learner may try to use these interchangeably, and a native speaker would instinctively know that some are incorrect, although in some cases, they may not know exactly why. By learning to become an English teacher, they'd understand that countable and non-countable nouns employ different adjectives for these reasons. By learning this, they gain a conscious understanding of an unconscious competency, because nobody requires conscious effort to speak their native tongue.

Why are learning stages important?

Learning stages play a key role in the education of employees in the workplace. One way is that a thorough understanding of learning stages guides your ongoing development through the next stages. For example, someone in the early stages of their learning requires different attention and guidance to someone close to mastering their skill. If you understand the next step in your learning stage, it helps you to understand your current learning in context and prepare accordingly.

Understanding the position of an individual in their development is integral to placing them in the right role in a company in the short term. For example, if you're in charge of employee training and development, understanding what stage someone's at can help you assign them responsibilities that align with their abilities. As they progress, you can give them additional responsibilities commensurate with their ongoing development. This can help you improve efficiency at the company you work for and maximise the potential of its personnel.


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