The Four Stages of Competence

The four-stage model is intriguingly simple, describing a person’s path from ignorance to mastery:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

We don’t know what we don’t know. The learner is unaware of his or her knowledge gap, misunderstanding, or lack of a particular skill.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

We become aware of our limitations and begin to learn. The learner now realizes the importance of a skill but fails in trying to apply that skill.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

We perform competently when we deliberately focus our attention on the task at hand. The learner, through practice, can now apply the skill but has to think about each step.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

We naturally perform excellently, the skill becomes second nature. The learner can apply this skill effortlessly without conscious thought. The learner has mastered the skill as a result of many hours of practice.

The progression takes place in strict order: 1, 2, 3, and only then to stage 4. It is not possible to skip stages, and it is not safe to assume the learner is beginning at any stage other than 1. For some skills, especially advanced ones, people can regress to previous stages if they fail to practice and exercise their new skills. A person regressing from 4, back through 3, to 2, will need to develop again through 3 to again achieve stage 4—unconscious competence.

Summing-up: Regardless of the task or skill, we all go through a learning process that takes us from not knowing to proficiency.

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