The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

When you learn a new skill, the beginning tends to be the most frustrating part. Often, you’re not sure what you should be doing exactly, or how you should be doing it. This applies to everything from starting a new sport, to trying to speak a foreign language.

Luckily, the process of becoming better at new skills is relatively predictable, and can be broken down into different stages. Once you understand how it works, you will understand why the beginning is hard, and you will be able to identify your position in the learning process. Overall, this will make you more aware of your abilities and more conscious of your learning, which will help you learn new skills better and with more motivation.

 

The levels of competence

 

The four stages of skill learning (based on level of competence).

 

  • Unconscious incompetence- in the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re not entirely aware of what the new skill entails or what your goals should be. You make mistakes without realizing that you’re making them.
  • Conscious incompetence- at this stage, you know you’re still making a lot of mistakes, but you’re now at least aware that you’re making them. You still don’t know a lot, but you can recognize what you need to learn in order to improve.
  • Conscious competence- if you’re at this level, it means that you’re relatively proficient in the skill, so that you have a good understanding of it, and you make only a small amount of mistakes. However, performing at a high level still requires a significant effort on your part.
  • Unconscious competence- at this point, you are so well-practiced in the skill that you can perform at a high level with relatively little effort. For you, the necessary actions are now mostly instinctual and automatic.

These stages are often mentioned in discussions of learning theory.[1,2,3,4] Some researchers also propose a fifth stage, called “unconscious supercompetence”, which is similar to “unconscious competence”, but at a higher and more effortless level.[1,5,6] However, because this stage is less clearly defined, it is less commonly referenced in literature. In reality, whether or not this distinction exists isn’t truly crucial, since it only matters if you’re at the highest level of proficiency anyway.

Historical note: it’s not clear where this theory originated. It’s often attributed to Abraham Maslow, who also developed the hierarchy of needs, but this claim is disputed.[7] It’s entirely possible that this is because several people came up with similar conceptualizations of the model independently from one another. In any case, this doesn’t have any effect on how the theory is applied today.

 

Applying this in your learning

This framework is not intended as an absolute, 100% accurate psychological model. Instead,  it’s meant to give you a rough idea of the stages of competence that you will go through as you learn new skills. Use it to recognize where you are in the learning process, and how you’re advancing.

Keep in mind that you are likely going to fluctuate between the different levels, or have certain subsets of the skill at one level, while other subsets will be at different level. For example, if you’re learning a new language, it’s possible that your reading will be at a higher level than your writing, or that you’ll be better at understanding what other people say than at speaking yourself.[8]

The main takeaway is this: feeling that you have no idea what you’re doing in the beginning is perfectly fine. When you eventually start realizing that you’re making tons of mistakes, that’s not a bad thing either. Instead, these are both predictable and necessary stages of learning, that you go through as you slowly improve.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • When learning a new skill, you advance through several stages of competence.
  • You will start at unconscious incompetence, advance to conscious incompetence, followed by conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence.
  • Your abilities might fluctuate a bit as you learn, and it’s natural for different subskills to be at different levels.
  • If you’re feeling helpless when you start learning a new skills, don’t worry; it’s a natural part of the learning process.