- Describe theories about the stages and dimensions of learning
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? 
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.. Why is that?
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.” 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.
The Where of Learning
By the where of the learning dimensions, we are talking about the physical, social, and cultural environment that influence learning.
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.
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.
As these four constructs are intertwined and interactional, we can appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of the stages of learning and the learning process.
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
- Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." The Wayback Machine. web.archive.org/web/20170327195133/http://www.davidmansaray.com/becoming-an-expert#disqus_thread. ↵
- Alexander, P.A., D. L. Schallert, and R. E. Reynolds. "What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered." Educational Psychologist, 2009, vol. 44(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. ↵