The four stages of competence, also known as the four stages of learning, is a model based on the premise that before a learning experience begins, learners are unaware of what or how much they know (unconscious incompetence), and as they learn, they move through four psychological states until they reach a stage of unconscious competence.

By understanding the model, trainers can better identify learning needs and develop learning objectives based on where their target audience is in the four stages related to a given topic.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

In unconscious incompetence, the learner isn’t aware that a skill or knowledge gap exists.

2. Conscious Incompetence

In conscious incompetence, the learner is aware of a skill or knowledge gap and understands the importance of acquiring the new skill. It’s in this stage that learning can begin.

3. Conscious Competence

In conscious competence, the learner knows how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires practice, conscious thought and hard work.

4. Unconscious Competence

In unconscious competence, the individual has enough experience with the skill that he or she can perform it so easily they do it unconsciously.

4 Stages of Learning

The model helps trainers understand the emotional state of their learners. For example, a learner in unconscious incompetence will respond differently to training than a learner in conscious incompetence. If someone doesn’t know there’s a problem, he or she is less likely to engage in the solution. On the other hand, if someone is in conscious competence, he or she may just need additional practice rather than training.

The four stages of competence are core to the algorithms used in adaptive learning technologies. By knowing in which stage a learner is for a particular topic, an adaptive learning platform can select content on that topic that will help the learner reach the next stage. It can even use assessments to demonstrate to learners that they have skills gaps, thus moving them from stage one to stage two.

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