The Stages of Learning

4 stages of learning

The Stages of Learning is a model we talked about in Why Awareness is Essential for Your Wellbeing. It is a simple and effective model/theory explaining the different stages of learning experienced when approaching any new skill or technique. It applies to all learning and growth, from trying something completely new, to changing a habit, such as a new healthy eating regime.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail so you can add it to your toolkit to help you when facing a new challenge.

The Stages of Learning Explained

The original 4 stage model, developed in 1969 by Malcolm Broadwell and popularised in the 1970’s by Noel Burch. To look at the stages in more detail I am using my personal story of mountain biking as an example. 

man and woman on mountain bikes in trees
So much fun!

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence (Unaware and Unable)

When you are unaware of the skill or any technique required. You don’t know what you don’t know. You could describe this level as one of ignorance.

Before I learned to ride a bike as a child, I didn’t have a clue how to ride a bike and I wasn’t even aware what a bike was! I didn’t know what the pedals were, what they did etc.  

However, as far as mountain biking was concerned, I had moved past this stage. I began my learning journey with mountain biking at stage 2.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence (Aware and Unable)

This stage means you are aware that there is a right way to do something, but you can’t do it yet. Having awareness is only one part of learning; putting awareness into practise takes time. How much time is very dependent on the skill or technique involved and any previous experience.

Going back to my mountain biking example, I was able to ride a bike, but on the road. The issue was, I hadn’t ridden mountain bike trails before. So I knew there was a technique to changing gears, steering on uneven ground and navigating obstacles, but I couldn’t do it yet.  This was a completely new experience.

I remember feeling nervous, excited, uncertain and brave all at the same time! I was slow to start and we opted for easy fire trails to test out my technical ability and build my confidence.  I found I was having trouble thinking of more than one thing at once. If I was focussing on changing gear I would forget to steer, and vice versa. 

I am very aware of being at this stage of learning when facing new technical challenges or when on a new trail. I am conscious of the technique but cannot always put this into action to complete the obstacle. I can also feel unable to ride if it is particularly wet and muddy as maneuvering safely is trickier when it is slippy. This can be frustrating and demoralising. It is hard sometimes not to feel like I have regressed and that I am failing. 

Focussing on what I can do helps and breaking the moves down into smaller, easier steps. Finishing on a positive is important and I am learning to be kinder to myself when things don’t always go according to plan.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence (Aware and Able)

At this stage, you know what the technique is, and are able to do it. Putting the skill and technique into action still requires concentration and consistency can be varied. There is real focus on what you are doing and how you are doing it.

So as I practised on the bike trails my confidence increased,  I am more confident in my technical ability and more relaxed. I feel balanced, can get up a bit of speed, am able to steer to avoid tree roots and big rocks (mostly) and attempt some technical elements. 

This has been a result of regular practise and ‘drilling’ a section of trail, repeating until I succeed. 

I have a huge sense of achievement and I do feel brave, whilst retaining a degree of caution and awareness of not wanting to fall off or crash and burn. I still have to concentrate and think about the skill elements involved. 

Stage 4  – Unconscious Competence (Unaware and Able)

This stage is when you are very familiar with the skill and technique involved and can consistently perform to a good standard, without thinking. This is autopilot, when you are acting habitually. 

Some of my mountain biking I am on autopilot. The easier trails I can manoeuvre without full awareness of how I am doing it. I instinctively shift my weight to regain balance and feel confident in my ability. I love the sense of freedom I feel and the thrill of the ride. 

Moving through the Stages of Learning 

You might be able to relate to my continuing mountain bike experiences. Or it might not be mountain biking for you; maybe another exercise challenge, your eating habits, a challenge at work or home. 

Learning new stuff is as much about your confidence to try as it is about technical ability or know-how. Think back to the metaphor of The Elephant and the Rider explained in The Myth about Willpower where the rider represents the logical part of our brain and the elephant the emotional. The rider is powerless to force the elephant to do something it does not want to do and can only work with the elephant to encourage or motivate and remove any barriers so the elephant follows the desired path.

I have progressed, both technically and psychologically, with my mountain biking, although this has not been a linear progression. Recent trips out after several months break, have seen me back at stage 2 for some technical elements. Feeling nervous and fearful of falling, I have avoided obstacles I have succeeded at in the past as a sense of self-doubt has taken over. This has nothing to do with my technical ability, it is my confidence in that ability. This has been hugely frustrating.

However I have taken reassurance that this shifting confidence, and doubt in my technical ability, is absolutely OK, after bumping into an experienced mountain biker in Scotland. He nailed a technically difficult section of trail, we applauded him and I commented on my lack of confidence or ability to even attempt that section of trail. He thanked us and replied, “I succeed about once in every three visits. It depends how it feels on the day and where my head is at.”

 I learned a couple of things that day:

  1. It might take me 15 attempts to successfully ride up and over a series of boulders, and how many times you try doesn’t matter. I CAN do it.
  2. Sometimes it is ok for it not to ‘feel’ right.  So I build up confidence through continued practise and come back another day.

Confidence is part of the emotional ‘elephant’ and is massively influenced by:

  1. Your technical ability – do you have the knowledge and know what is required? 
  2. Your physical ability – are you physically capable? Strong enough or fit enough? 
  3. Your psychological state, your ‘head’ – do you have the self-belief that you have enough technical know-how and physical ability?

Your emotional responses can vary at each stage, depending on what you are trying to achieve and your physical and mental fitness. There is no right or wrong emotion at any stage; these may be positive or negative and you will also find they will vary depending on the day and the situation. (Remember the mountain biker and his 1 in 3 attempts at the technical section).

There is real value in understanding your emotions at any given stage of learning as this is an important step in your ability to process and work with your emotions. In other words helping to motivate your elephant and move through the stages. 

When mountain biking, I move from fear, nervousness, elation to frustration and never remain at any one stage of learning through a session. You might ask, why do it then? 

My answer is because I have far more exhilarating days than frustrating days. I still feel brave when I do try more technical obstacles, whether I succeed or not. The overriding emotion from all the times on my bike is one of enjoyment, achievement and happiness. I love it!

Cerin and I at the end of a muddy ride
Happy and muddy at the end of a mountain bike trip


The Stages of Learning has been a useful framework for me in helping me to focus on how to progress and develop a skill or technique and recognise the important influence of my emotions in this. I now understand learning progression is not always linear and when I revisit a stage, for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean I am failing, regressing or not worthy. 

Eat, Move, Be Happy’s philosophy is to

‘Challenge your thinking, to inspire bravery and build confidence’

We hope this framework can form part of your toolkit to do more of that, whatever your endeavour. 

We will be exploring more about the relationship between the physical and psychological elements of moving through the stages, including understanding more about potential blockers and how you can overcome them. 

Until then I leave you with this thought:
Staying at stage 1 – ‘not knowing what you don’t know’ is limiting your opportunity for new experiences and enjoyment. Being more curious about what could be and being brave to try stuff can open all sorts of enriching, enjoyable experiences.  You may surprise yourself. I certainly have!

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