Stages of the Learning Process

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe theories about the stages and dimensions of learning

people skating at a skate park

Consider experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as how to skateboard or cook a favorite dish. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after struggling a bit, it became second nature. What is important to remember is that something you consider easy now was most likely really difficult at first. Your college classes may be the same way. At first, you may struggle, and then eventually you’ll become competent. If you think about learning in stages, or in steps, you’ll see that these experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in four stages.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

This stage will likely be the easiest learning stage—you don’t know, or you are not conscious or aware of, what you do not know yet. During this stage, you mainly show interest in something or prepare for learning. Stage 1 may not last that long because you don’t know what you don’t know. You might ask yourself, what do I need to learn?

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

This stage can be the most difficult for students because you begin to register how much you need to learn. You start to learn how much you do not know. At this stage, you now know what you need to learn. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice. You might ask yourself, how much more do I need to learn?

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

During this stage, you are beginning to truly understand some parts of your learning goal and you gain some confidence about what you do know. In other words, you are aware of what you know, and you’re ready to improve. Stage 3 requires skill repetition. You might ask yourself, what skills do I need to practice in order to feel more confident?

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

This is the final stage in which you have successfully practiced and repeated the process so many times the action can be performed without thinking. Think about something you used to not know how to do and now can do it without thinking, maybe riding a bike or perhaps cooking pasta or noodles. As a learner, you may still need to practice constantly and reevaluate which stage you are in so you can keep learning. You might ask yourself, which skills do you already have that will help you progress? [1]

Beyond Learning Stages

Patricia Alexander, a leading education theorist, has advanced a comprehensive framework to address the topic of the learning process that goes beyond understanding the learning process as discrete steps. Instead, her theory suggests that the learning process is more like the reciprocal relationship of a river and its surrounding landscape; the learner both changes and is changed by the learning object. Alexander’s theory especially makes sense given that each learner is different: student 1 and student 2 can attend the exact same class and have the same course materials, but will learn differently.[2]. Why is that?

The River Metaphor white water rapids in a river

Think of the stages of learning as a river. There is a “dynamic and reciprocal relationship between the ever-moving and transformational river and its surrounding environs.”[3] For example, a river’s flow is changed when moving into an uplift of land or a set of rocks. Conversely, when the river overflows its banks, it can scour the curves of the land to create canyons and pools. The river affects its environment and is affected by its environment.

The river is another good way to think about the stages of learning. In the same way the river brings together the dynamic of the flowing water and the river bank, and the transformational nature of both in an on-going way, the learning process too sees the complex interactions and transformations among the learner, the object, and the resulting “product” of learning. When we look at learning as a process, we see a change taking place.

Four Dimensions of Learning

Further, in this transformational perspective of the stages of learning, we can think of four components or dimensions of this interactive system:

The What of Learning

There is always a what that is being learned or that is in the process of change.

For example, Momiji is learning how to skateboard (the what). She has some experience riding snowboards, but wants to be able to ride a skateboard to work two blocks away.

The Where of Learning

By the where of the learning dimensions, we are talking about the physical, social, and cultural environment that influence learning.

Momiji decides to hang out at a nearby skateboard park to watch the experienced riders and maybe get some tips from them (the where). She quickly finds herself being immersed in a new world of athletic tricks, new language to describe the moves, and a new lifestyle of skateboarding.

The Who of Learning

The who of the learning dimensions involves the characteristics of the learner as it relates to biological, cognitive, and experiential (experience) factors. We know that not all learners will learn as well or as quickly as others, and this learning dimension would be a key factor.

After several weeks of daily workouts at the skateboard park, Momiji begins to notice a change in herself. She has become a bit stronger physically due to the training and finds she no longer has to focus on just staying on the board. She has become proficient in skateboarding  basics and is starting to attempt more difficult tricks. She realizes that her confidence level has increased in order for her to attempt things she never would have tried only a few weeks ago (the who).

The When of Learning

The when of the learning dimensions refers to the temporal nature of life. The frame for learning changes not only because the time of learning changes, but the learner herself has changed.

Now two months later, Momiji has a new set of friends and feels a comradeship with them that is nothing like she has felt before. She looks back and smiles when she thinks that all of this started because she wanted to learn to skateboard so she could ride to work (the when).

As these four constructs are intertwined and interactional, we can appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of the stages of learning and the learning process.

Try It


conscious competence: the more advanced learning stage where we understand and confidently repeat the skills we need to practice

conscious incompetence: the more focused learning stage where we understand what we do not know and will need to learn

unconscious competence: the final learning stage where we can execute a task without thinking because we have successfully done so many times

unconscious incompetence: the initial learning stage where we do not know what we do not know and are perhaps merely curious

  1. Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." The Wayback Machine.
  2. Alexander, P.A., D. L. Schallert, and R. E. Reynolds. "What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered." Educational Psychologist, 2009, vol. 44(3).
  3. Alexander, P.A., D. L. Schallert, and R. E. Reynolds. "What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered." Educational Psychologist, 2009, vol. 44(3), pp. 176–192.