How Many Learning Stages are There?

If you’re wondering how many stages of learning there are, then this article is for you! There has been a great deal of research and study on the topic and we will explore the various theories.

The main confusion in this area is due to varying models that appear in mainstream media and text. These models appear less frequently than they used to in academic research, as we now rely on more biometric data to understand learning (fMRI and EEG). However, these models of learning still supply a useful lens to understand how people learn and how we can optimise the way we coach skills.

There are two main models that cause confusion:

The key difference is that Fitts and Ponsers’ stages of learning was developed specifically to explain motor learning (learning movements and sporting skills). Whereas, the four stages of competence model has been applied to motor learning, but was developed more broadly to explain learning any skill (originally applied to a school setting).

How many learning stages are there?

The four-stage competence model, unsurprisingly, has four stages. Fitts and Ponsers’ stages of learning has three stages. These stages describe the processes of learning that an individual passes through.

Both focus on the cognitive aspects of skill development (another reason for the confusion). Within sport, there are wider perceptual and biomechanical processes that are also important to understand. However, if we focus on the cognitive processes then Fitts and Ponsers’ stages of learning is useful for describing these aspects within learning sport skills.

What are the four stages of learning?

The four stages within the competence model are:

Unconscious incompetence:

The individual does not recognize that they do not know how to accomplish something, or that they have a problem. They may refuse to acknowledge the usefulness of the skill. Before proceeding to the next stage, the person must realize their own incompetence and appreciate the value of the new ability. The length of time it takes an individual to go through this stage is highly variable.

Conscious incompetence

Individuals are aware that they have a skill gap, but not necessarily how to address it or improve their performance. This stage can be frustrating for learners as they know what needs to happen but struggle with the implementation of this new skill.

Conscious competence

The person knows how to do something or understands it. However, to demonstrate the skill or knowledge, attention must be focused. It might be broken down into steps and includes a lot of deliberate involvement in applying the new skill.

Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a particular skill that it has become “second nature” and can be done quickly. As a result, the skill may be performed while carrying out another activity. Depending on how and when it was acquired, the person may be able to teach others.

What are Fitts and Ponsers’ stages of learning?

The three stages of learning in Fitts and Posners’ model are cognitive, associate and autonomous. To learn more about Fitts and Ponsers’ Stages of learning check out this article.

What is the importance of stages of learning?

The stages of learning models allow us as coaches and educators to understand the process of learning and how we can better support our learners. It is important to be aware that individuals do not necessarily go through all these stages in a linear way, but may revisit or jump between them.

Both models are useful for understanding the cognitive processes that underpin skill acquisition. They provide us with a language to talk about learning, and an awareness of the particular struggles a learner may be going through.

Both models also have value for coaches and educators, as they provide a language to discuss learning with our learners, helping us understand their internal processes (and the potential frustrations).

Further reading

  • Fitts, P. and Posner, M.I. (1967) Human Performance. Brooks/Cole Publishing, Belmont, CA.
  • Broadwell, Martin (1969) Teaching for Learning
  • Hansen, Alice (2012) Trainees and teachers as reflective learners. In Reflective learning and teaching in primary schools.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • Shaw, W. (2020) How Many Learning Stages are There? Available from: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy]

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.