Progressing Through the Four Stages of Competence

Do you remember what it was like when you first learned how to ride a bike or to drive a car? Or what it was like when you sat down to take a test you thought you were ready for, and you quickly realized that wasn’t the case?

Thanks to the great guest speaker I had in class today (Matt from PwC, a former student), I learned there is a learning model from the field of psychology that applies to such situations.

Known as the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, it refers to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

Here are the four states:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence – Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence – The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence – The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Matt used learning to drive a car as an example of seeing the model in action. When you are just starting out, you may think that driving a car is a piece of cake. You’ve been watching people do it for years, and it looks pretty straightforward. But in reality, you are unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know what you don’t know.

When you then take a car out for a drive for the first time, you quickly realize that it’s much harder than you thought. You don’t realize how quickly things happen on the road, everything you have to pay attention while driving, and the impact of other drivers’ behavior. At this point, you are consciously incompetent. (I think this is the stage I am perpetually stuck in; I’ve realized over time how little I actually know about stuff.)

Once you realize what you don’t know, you can embark on a learning journey. You take driver’s ed classes and you get more practice behind the wheel. You start to become a competent driver, but it requires a good deal of concentration. You want no distractions – no radio, no friends in the car. You have become consciously competent.

Finally, after a certain amount of experience, you start to drive without having to think about every single action you need to take; your training and muscle memory kick into place. You have become unconsciously competent.

I find the four stages model to being a great way to explain the learning process. It also provides a bit of comfort when you are first starting out doing something new. If you have the patience, and the commitment, you should be confident that at some point, you will become unconsciously competent.

So thank you, Matt, for reversing the teacher-student role. The only downside –  today’s lesson just adds one more item to the number of things about which I am consciously incompetent.

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