Train The Trainer

4 Stages of Competence – Training

There are 4 stages of competence that we go through when we are learning.  They can be obvious to us or hidden.  In psychology the 4 stages of competence relate to the psychological states that we go through when learning a new skill.  The development of the 4 stages of competence model has been attributed to varying individuals, but most notably Noel Burch – see Wikipedia for more information.

In this blog each of the 4 stages of competence is broken down into 3 sections:

  • Description
  • Learner Viewpoint
  • Trainer Activities and Actions

The description not only uses many of the approved versions and standard phrases, but also the basic interpretation that breaks it down into simple, plain English.  Each of the 4 stages of competence also has a section that describes how it feels from the learner’s point of view and how that stage may be recognised, the thoughts and emotions that they go through.  The final section is dedicated to the trainer and describes from the trainer point of view what they need to do or could do to try and reduce the angst and concerns of the learner.


Stage 1


Unconscious Incompetence is the classic phrase that is used and occasionally Unconsciously Unskilled.  You also may see “I don’t know what I don’t know”.  You are blissfully ignorant: you have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in a specific area and you’re unaware of this.

In a work situation an individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily even realise that they need to know this task.  They also may deny the usefulness of the skill.  This is where a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) comes in to identify the gaps in knowledge and who needs to learn new skills.  In the world of learning for the sheer enjoyment of learning, an individual may find that there is something they want to know how to do regardless of whether it will be of benefit in a work environment – take learning how to sail for instance.  Before moving on to the next stage the individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill.   The length of time an individual spends in stage 1 depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Learner Viewpoint 

I seem to be getting on OK in my job, but feel I am being left a bit behind and have stagnated.  I want to progress more and learn new skills to get me to the next level.  That is my incentive.  How do I go about it?  Do I even need to acquire a new skill or just do the job I am so used to and do well?  I feel a bit lost and overlooked so I will put myself forward and speak to my Manager to see where I can go from here.

Thinking of new skills, that reminds me that I want to learn to sail.  That would be fun and I might meet new people and build friendships whilst I learn.  It would be great to be able to sail a yacht or qualify to be a crew member of Mediterranean sailing holiday or yacht tour.  I am sure it will be just like driving a car, but a different vehicle on a different surface and I am sure I can handle that. Easy!

Trainer Activities and Actions

At this stage you may be totally unaware that the individual is seeking new challenges or doesn’t even want to be there.  Be observant and conduct regular checks on what is available for people to learn and where they see themselves in the foreseeable future, and what their motives are.  Lead them along the path of learning and encourage them to be open about their aspirations for the future.  There are possibly management development structures and career paths to follow for those who wish to go further.  Of course if there is a new incentive, system or process that is driven by the organisation you work for, then a more formal approach through analysis, such as a TNA will identify who needs what type of training.  Start to develop a Training Curriculum which outlines the key topics and objectives and audience that the course is aimed at.

Stage 2


Conscious Incompetence or Consciously Unskilled.  I now know what I don’t know.

This is the stage where the learner becomes aware of the skill or task that they need to or want to learn, but know that they are not proficient.  They now realise where the next step in their career path is and what they need to skill up on to get there.  The extent of the learning and degree of commitment required also become known.  This level can be demoralising, causing people to lose confidence or even give up on their learning efforts altogether.  Provide plenty of encouragement and support during this stage, and explain the idea of the 4 Stages of Competence, so that people understand that any feelings of discouragement that they are experiencing are to be expected and perfectly normal.  This is where the learning starts!

Learner Viewpoint 

I did not realise there was so much to learn.  At least I know what I am up against now and it is quite a lot!  I feel a bit overwhelmed by it all and not sure whether I am going to be able to cope, but I am going to make a valiant effort to close this gap.

Even the sailing course is not as straightforward as I thought.  There is a whole new language to learn, I knew some of the more simple terms such as port and starboard, but there is a whole dictionary full to get to grips with.  At least I have the key topics and the objectives.  The main objective is stated as “At the end of the 5 day course you will be able to sail a dinghy across the reservoir and back unaided”.  I know I will get in a tangle with the knots on the next level course – how’s this for an objective for one of the sessions – “Describe the purpose of, and construct without assistance in a timely manner, each of the following knots and hitches:

  • Reef knot
  • Figure of 8 knot
  • Bowline
  • Cleat hitch
  • Round turn and 2 half hitches

What have I let myself in for!

Trainer Activities and Actions

At this point the Training Curriculum will be complete and the learning objectives formulated.  This will give the learner a clear outcome from attending the course and define each of the key topics that will build to the end goal.  At the start of the course you will be met with enthusiasm, but as the extent of learning required sinks in, you may have to deal with an element of despondency.  Encourage the learners and get them to draw on their existing skills and experiences.  It is possible that many of their existing skills and approaches to tasks can be applied to the new tasks, reducing the burden of quantity and complexity that they envisage.  Provide plenty of encouragement and support during this stage, reinforce the points they know and guide them to use that knowledge to advantage in learning the new skills.  This is where the learning starts!

Stage 3


Conscious Competence or Consciously Skilled.  You have acquired the skill, can use it, but are not proficient and it takes a lot of concentration and effort to perform the skill.

This is often the longest of the 4 stages of competence or learning depending on the number of individual topics to learn to make up the whole task.  This is the stage where they begin to realise that they can do it if they apply themselves and practise with notes, guide and assistance to begin with and eventually unaided.

Learner Viewpoint 

I am slowly getting the hang of this, but I am so glad I have my notes and someone there to remind and assist me if I haven’t got it quite right.  Gradually it is all falling into place but I am not letting go of my notes and the guidebook just yet!  I just need to keep repeating the tasks in slightly differing scenarios to feel confident that I have mastered each of the separate tasks and then put them all together.  It is a slow process for many of the topics, but some of them seem to be easier – that boosts my confidence no end!  At least I know now that I will not be sailing single-handedly around the world like Robin Knox-Johnston for a good while yet, but I am on the way!  I just want to get to the day where it all comes naturally and I don’t have to think about what the next thing is that I have to do.

Trainer Activities and Actions

Keep them focused on the skills that they need to learn and give them plenty of opportunities to put these skills into practice.  Encouragement and constructive feedback play an important part in this stage of learning.  Use lots of exercises and examples for them to work through and gradually build upon each of topics so that the repetition helps them learn.  Create exercises and role plays that use several of the new skills acquired over and over again.  Provide an opportunity for a little bit of competition between learners, perhaps in teams where they can help each other, share knowledge and explain the tasks to each other using their own interpretations and terms.

Stage 4


Unconscious Competence or Unconsciously Skilled.  It has become second nature.

At this stage, the new skills are used effortlessly.  Tasks can be performed and decisions made without conscious effort.   There is complete confidence in a high level of success.

Learner Viewpoint 

Got it!  It is like making a cup of tea – I do not have to think what I am doing and each of the elements that I have to perform to reach the end goal just come naturally!  I need to ensure that I get lots of opportunities to use this new skill so that I don’t forget though.  Maybe I can help others to learn this too?  I am feeling rather pleased with myself and now looking forward to my next level in the whole process – maybe I will apply to be crew on the Mediterranean yacht tour after all – the America’s Cup will have to wait.

Trainer Activities and Actions

Once the learner has mastered one set of skills, it’s important to consolidate them and learn more if they want to continue to grow.  A good way to do this is to teach these new skills to others (the learner becomes the Subject Matter Expert in the team/department) and perhaps as the trainer you can include them in the next course to help run a session or at least share their insights.   This will keep information fresh in their minds, deepen their understanding of the material and provide a rewarding way to pass knowledge on to others.

Make sure that people avoid complacency and that they stay up-to-date with their skills, remind them that it may be wise to use checklists and formal procedures to ensure that they cover all the required steps.  There may be a process in place for regular checks and for the activity to be observed so that the skill level is maintained at the standard required by the organisation or to meet requirements of certification.

You may also need to remind people how difficult it was to reach this level, so that they offer empathy and support to people who are at an earlier stage in the process.

Keep learning!

You will find the 4 Stages of Competence referred to in many of our training courses.

Check out the Courses page for further details.


11 November 2019


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