Four Stages of Competence

The process of learning can be divided into four stages. Every person goes through these stages knowingly or unknowingly. Here is an article discussing the four stages of competence and how do they actually occur one after the other in the learning process.

The Conscious Competence Learning Model states four stages of learning or competence. These are related to the psychology of a person’s mind when he progresses from one level to the other, while acquiring a skill. The Gordon Training International is known to have developed this model. It was initially known as “The Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill”, and was devised by Noel Burch around 30 years ago. The four stage model is also known as Maslow’s Four Stages of Competence. However, it does not appear in the significant works published by Abraham Maslow.

Some people find this theory similar to Johari window, which is used to create self-awareness and understanding among individuals in a group. The Johari window is also a 2×2 matrix dealing with self-awareness. However, the stages of competence deal with the learning process. The conscious competence learning model can be used by employees of an organization or by people at large, to gauge themselves when acquiring new skills. Let’s study the stages in detail.

The Four Stages of Competence

First Stage: Unconscious Incompetence
In this stage, a person is unaware of the existence of a particular skill. Since he is unaware of the skill, he does not know about its utility and relevance. The person feels no need to acquire that particular skill, and does not realize the fact that he will not be able to perform it because he is incompetent in it. Therefore,it becomes important to make him realize of his shortcomings and the benefits of learning that skill. It is the task of the trainer or teacher to instill this realization in the person. Once the person is aware of his deficiency, he will be in the next stage of the learning process.

Second Stage: Conscious Incompetence
A person in this stage is aware of his incompetence and the usefulness of the particular skill he is lacking in. He knows that acquiring the skill will definitely improve his effectiveness in that front. Incapability of the person to perform a skill-specific task will make him realize its importance and motivate him to learn it. In this stage, the person roughly estimates his incompetence level and figures out how much effort he needs to put in to master the skill. Being aware of his own deficit, he is motivated to learn with interest and dedication.

Third Stage: Conscious Competence
A person is at this stage when he can perform the skill, but not well enough to teach someone. Enough practice is required to reach to the level of unconscious competence. The person can perform a task using the skill, but needs to recollect the steps and think about them. It does not come out automatically in him. Therefore, the person should practice more often, so that he becomes proficient in it. Practice will help the person to move from conscious competence stage to unconscious competence.

Fourth Stage: Unconscious Competence
In this stage, the person can perform the skill on his own. No assistance is required and the person can automatically perform the skill. He gets proficient enough to perform multiple tasks at the same time. Teaching the skill to another person, now becomes an easy task for him. Sometimes, the person develops the skill so well that he faces difficulty in explaining how it is performed, simply because it comes out naturally to him. This is the final stage of learning, and a person should strive to reach to this level so that he can become a master of that skill.

The “Suggested Fifth Stage”: Conscious Competence of Unconscious Incompetence
This is suggested as the fifth stage of the conscious competence learning model. It signifies the ability of a person to instill unconscious incompetence in others. By doing so, he can create the urge of learning new skills in incompetent people.

Examples in which the four stages of learning model become clearly evident are swimming, driving, typing, etc. When a person does not know how to drive and is unable to use manual gears, he is in the stage of unconscious incompetence. When he starts learning and realizes how much effort he needs to put in, he is at the conscious incompetence level. Practicing driving for a few days makes him capable of handling the gears in a better way with some attention, brings him to the conscious competence level. Finally, when he becomes a proficient driver and effortlessly changes gears, he is at the unconscious competence level. This learning tool can be used to inculcate lacking skills in a person.

Organizations can conduct competency mapping of their employees to determine the skills they are good at, and the ones they need to work on. Depending on that, they can have sessions with groups of employees to tell them the importance of this model, and how they can use it for self-improvement. Apart from organizations, this model can also be used as a learning tool by students or rather, any individual who wants to identify his short comings, learn the skills he is lacking in, and gain expertise in them.