The Four Stages of Learning Model

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No matter what new skill we decide to learn, there are four distinct learning stages that we transition through.

The Four Stages of Competence Model
Noel Burch, “Learning a new skill is easier said than done”, Gordon Training International

Being aware of these stages can help us to accept that the learning process is often slow, uncomfortable, and frustrating. 

The model, developed in the 1970’s by Noel Burch, highlights a four stage process for learning, and proposes that when we initially try to learn any new movement skill, whether that be in sport, music, dance etc., we are unaware of how little we actually know. As we begin to recognise this incompetence, we then consciously try to acquire the skill, and start to use it. Finally, we develop it to such a level, that we have the ability to execute the skill unconsciously.

Stage 1: Unconsciously unskilled

We are inept and are unaware of it.

e.g. A friend asks you to come along to a beginner’s tennis lesson. You go to the lesson, but having never played before, and knowing very little about tennis, you feel self-conscious and awkward. The lesson makes you understand how much you don’t know about playing tennis.

Stage 2: Consciously unskilled

We become aware of how poorly we do something, showing us how much more we need to learn.

e.g. You’ve been active for most of your life, and consider yourself to have very good hand-eye co-ordination. Yet after a couple of private golf lessons, you realise how difficult many of the techniques are. You are aware of what you’re supposed to be doing, but don’t seem able to do it – this is the awareness stage. You also observe the ease with which other, more experienced, players execute their shots.

Stage 3: Consciously skilled

We try the skill out, experiment, and practice. We know how to do the skill correctly, but need to think hard to perform it.

e.g. You’re expending a high level of mental effort fully concentrating on doing the movements correctly, both to get the most benefit from them, and to avoid being corrected. However, it’s not easy because these new movement patterns are not yet totally familiar to you. Your rate of improvement is non-linear, which can cause frustration as it feels that progress is ‘two steps forwards, but one step back’.

Stage 4: Unconsciously skilled

We continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually arriving at a stage where they become easier and, given time, natural and instinctive.

e.g. You’ve now practiced and honed these skills over an extended period of time, resulting in them becoming automated without the need for conscious thought. These skills are now ready to be brought into a competitive environment.

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