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Developing Skill Acquisition Training Based on Unconscious Competence Theory

Four-quadrants of conscious competence model

How an individual acquire competence or expertise kept me fascinated for years. While developing my doctorate literature review, I started out with some research on models of expertise / competence development.  Though most of the body of knowledge out there is focused on stages of development as opposed to techniques of development, I thought it may make sense to talk about the oldest and most commonly used model of stages of competence development which training and non training professionals both can relate to.

When I was a kid I got my new bicycle. Not waiting for next day I started riding it hardly worrying about whether or not I knew how to ride. Not knowing when to paddle and when to steer I fell a couple of time. Those were enough to tell me that I didn’t know how to ride it. As I took help and coaching for others I started perfecting it and maneuvering it in different situations. More I did so more I was confident. Eventually I was able to enjoy from races to stunt to sight seeing as if cycling was my borne talent. The journey I just explained is called ‘Unconscious Competence Theory’.  I thought I will expand upon my last post and explain this model in detail.

There are 5 different variations of or improvisation of this model.

Robinson (1974) Conscious Competence Model

The early known work in explaining stages of proficiency is known as ‘conscious competence’. Chapman of Business Balls cited that an article of The Personnel Journal (1974) attributes origin of Conscious competence to W. Lewis Robinson, Vice President of ICS way back in 1970s. The article quotes Robinson explaining that individual progresses through four definite stages of learning a new skill (or behavior, ability, technique, etc.):

  1. Unconscious incompetence: In the beginning, a person is not aware of that he lacks a particular skill or in several cases individual may not even know the relevance or usefulness of the skill.
  2. Conscious incompetence:  Then the person moves to a stage where he starts becoming aware of the existence and relevance of the skill and they may start recognizing how much he doesn’t know.
  3. Conscious competence: Now he starts working toward attaining that skill and does necessary practice. During this stage he can reliably perform the learnt skill without assistance. This still requires attention, concentration and has not yet become automatic at it.
  4. Unconscious competence: With consistent practice and repeated use, the individual moves to next stage of ‘unconscious competence’ when the skill become automatic (i.e. the skill enters the subconscious mind and become second nature).

The original nomenclature of competency has been replaced by broader term competence and is called Conscious competence theory. The model has several representations the popular being the quadrant matrix (as shown in Figure below). The model emphasize progression is from quadrant 1 through 2 and 3 to 4. It is not possible to jump stages. For some advanced skills, individual may actually regress back to previous stages for want of consistent practice on newly learnt skills (as cited by Chapman of Business Balls).

  competence incompetence
  3 – conscious competence 2 – conscious incompetence
  • the person achieves ‘conscious competence’ in a skill when they can perform it reliably at will
  • the person will need to concentrate and think in order to perform the skill
  • the person can perform the skill without assistance
  • the person will not reliably perform the skill unless thinking about it – the skill is not yet ‘second nature’ or ‘automatic’
  • the person should be able to demonstrate the skill to another, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person
  • the person should ideally continue to practice the new skill, and if appropriate commit to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ at the new skill
  • practice is the single most effective way to move from stage 3 to 4
  • the person becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill
  • the person is therefore also aware of their deficiency in this area, ideally by attempting or trying to use the skill
  • the person realizes that by improving their skill or ability in this area their effectiveness will improve
  • ideally the person has a measure of the extent of their deficiency in the relevant skill, and a measure of what level of skill is required for their own competence
  • the person ideally makes a commitment to learn and practice the new skill, and to move to the ‘conscious competence’ stage
  4 – unconscious competence 1 – unconscious incompetence
  • the skill becomes so practiced that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain – it becomes ‘second nature’
  • common examples are driving, sports activities, typing, manual dexterity tasks, listening and communicating
  • it becomes possible for certain skills to be performed while doing something else, for example, knitting while reading a book
  • the person might now be able to teach others in the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it – the skill has become largely instinctual
  • this arguably gives rise to the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked periodically against new standards
  • the person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area
  • the person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned
  • the person might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill
  • the person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin
  • the aim of the trainee or learner and the trainer or teacher is to move the person into the ‘conscious competence’ stage, by demonstrating the skill or ability and the benefit that it will bring to the person’s effectiveness

Table: Adapted from Alan Chapman (N.d.) Conscious competence learning model matrix – unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, Business Balls.

The issue with these models is that it conceptually explains how individual learns but do not provide a way to quantify or segregate the development path of a learner. There are not very clear-cut indications how to measure attainment of each stage or where a particular stage ends. Further we do not know if this model is grounded in research or not.

Fitts (1986) Model of Skill Automaticity

Fitts (1986) provided a similar model in skill development which supports progression from conscious to less conscious form of practice. His model has only three stages of expertise:

  1. Cognitive stage: Learner constantly and consciously interact with nature and mechanics of what is being done
  2. Practice fixation stage: Multiple repetitions help to bring the steps in the long term memory
  3. Autonomous stageAt this stage skill can be automatically or subconsciously executed. Conscious mind can be used in monitoring and solving problem.

The highest stage in this model highlights “subconscious” use of skill whereas the previous model call it as unconscious state. Fitts’ usage of the state is more appropriate. This model provides the mechanism by which the automaticity is achieved. However, it does not directly demarcate the level of expertise which can be measured.

Gordon’s variation of Unconscious Competence Model

California based Gordon Training Institute has been using  similar model called ‘The Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill’ in which they replaced ‘skilled and unskilled’ for ‘competence and incompetence’, with underlying concept being same. The model emphasizes that to learn any skill there are four learning stages each individual goes through: unconsciously unskilled, consciously Unskilled, Consciously Skilled, and unconsciously skilled (Adams, N.d.). Cited by Linda Adams from Gordon’s website:

  1. Unconsciously unskilled. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are inept and unaware of it.
  2. Consciously unskilled. We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.
  3. Consciously skilled. Trying the skill out, experimenting, practicing. We now know how to do the skill the right way, but need to think and work hard to do it.
  4. Unconsciously skilled. If we continue to practice and apply the new skills, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier, and given time, even natural.

Langvin’s variation of Unconscious Competence Model

Langvin institute (2012) uses conscious competence model by renaming the stages using terminology from Dreyfus (2001) and Hoffman (2006) terminology. Their stages are:  The Novice/ Unconscious Incompetence, The Apprentice/ Conscious Incompetence, The Journeymen /Conscious Competence, The Master / Unconscious Competence. Cited from Langvin website:

  1. The Novice/Unconscious Incompetence: Often learners display excitement and enthusiasm in this stage because they don’t know that they don’t know.
  2. The Apprentice/Conscious Incompetence: In this stage the learners know they don’t know. This is where they recognize that they are out of their comfort zone because the skill to be learned may be more difficult than anticipated. It is in this stage that the learner may want to give up. It is important in this stage to build confidence with continued mentoring and coaching.
  3. The Journeymen/ Conscious Competence: Here, the learners know they know. With consistent practice and feedback the learners usually experience different levels of success. It is not uncommon for there to be some level of frustration because they are still conscious that they must concentrate and pay attention to performing the skill correctly; however, in time, and through trial and error, the practice becomes less challenging.
  4. The Master/Unconscious Competence: In this stage of learning, the learners don’t know they know. The learner has such mastery of the skill(s) that it becomes automatic. They no longer have to think about it; it becomes effortless. This is where the learner may experience magical moments because they feel intuitive, creative, and think outside of the box; however, it is also at this stage where major mistakes can occur because there is a tendency to take risks and short cuts.

Both of these models, just like Robinson’s model are not known to be grounded in research. However, it makes quite a common sense and representation is easy to understand.

Will Taylor (2007) Reflective Competence Model

The new body of argument are emerging which indicate that at ‘Unconscious competence’ level, the individual may cease to learn any further and may lack knowledge or skills on new methods and thus as an expert individual will find himself once again unconsciously incompetent. William Taylor suggested a Reflective Competence Model (as cited by Alan Chapman in Business Balls, n.d.) with a fifth level called reflective competence to represent the continuous self-observation to keep ideas and skills fresh, and allows for skill development further (shown in Figure below).

Reflective competence

Image- Reflective Competence Model (Courtesy: Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007 – taken from Business Balls)

Just like previous models on unconscious competence, it is not known if the model is grounded in research or not. However, it makes quite a common sense and representation is easy to understand.

4 Interesting Points About Unconscious Competence Models

There are few very interesting perspectives from various researchers which makes this simple model even more interesting:

a) Regressing back in cycle

The model dictates that it may not be possible to jump the stages. In fact reverse could be true. For some advanced skills, individual may actually regress back to previous stages for want of consistent practice on newly learnt skills (Chapman, n.d). There is this very interesting argument by some researchers which indicates that at ‘Unconscious competence’ level, the individual may cease to learn any further and may lack knowledge or skills on new methods and thus individual will find himself once again unconsciously incompetent. Doesn’t that happen all the time when we do not practice something we were once competent in?

b) Reflective Competence as next stage in cycle

There is another perspective too. We do not stay unconscionably competence all the time unless we continue practicing it and keep making some adjustments and improvements in our competence. If we don’t do so, we lose competence in some cases. That how William Taylor suggested that after ‘unconscious competence’ there is a fifth stage too. In reality it is a closed loop cycle of these 5 stages of competence development.

c) Last stage in the cycle?

Another interesting point is about a debate on whether expertise’s last stage should be unconscious competence or it should be called conscious competence where learner can explain what he is doing (Cheetam & Chivers, 2005). Nevertheless this raises a hypothesis that as opposed to linear stages, it could be a circle. I think as a trainer this makes sense that we need to be at conscious competence to be able to inact and demonstrate each step in the skill development vividly to the learners.

d) Where is automaticity in the cycle?

How can we ignore the practice and how automaticity is achieved in developing competence? Fitts (1986) model explains the skill development to be progression from conscious to less conscious form of practice, last being the ‘autonomous stage’ which indicate “subconscious” use of skill.

5 Guidelines for Training Designers and Strategists

The issue with these models is that it conceptually explains how individual learns but do not provide a way to quantify or segregate the development path of a learner. There are not very clear-cut indications how to measure attainment of each stage or where a particular stage ends. It is undeniable that it is simple and good model to explain how an individual’s competence passes through various stages in his journey to acquire expertise.

#1 Build Intense Practice:

Build intense practice during first 3 phases to accelerate the time taken by individual to move from unconscious in competence to conscious competence. How fast an individual can move through first 3 stages is dependent on quality of practice exercises. Ericsson & Charness (1994) deliberate practice concept guides how to make use of a trainer to coach and how to make use of good feedback mechanism.

# 2 Performance Support System:

Once an individual has reaches unconscious competence stage, then you need to design appropriate performance support system.  To avoid losing the touch with skills  and new updates, build variety of regular boosts of practice, deployment and updates to the individuals.

#3 Reflection Exercises: 

For the individuals who have reached unconscious competence, build appropriate reflection into  this post-training performance support system. One way may be some kind of meet-up and spaced post-training self-assessment survey.

#4 Skill Specificity:

The model is skill specific. An individual may be at unconscious competence in one skill while he may be at conscious competence for another skill. Therefore training programs and post training support has to provide the variety of intense practice and post-training performance systems which could take care of all the skills at different levels.

#5 Feedback and introspection:

Design a teaching assignment or coaching assignment for the individual under training for giving them the opportunity to peer-coach their colleagues. By doing so, they stay tuned well with conscious competence which forces them to think how they gained the expertise. This exercise also helps building reflective competence in the design.

Read my post on some insights on Competence vs. Expertise in this model by Dr. Peter Fadde.

Have you used this model to design your training programs? Do share your thoughts in comments. 


  1. Linda Adams, Gordon Training, Available at http://www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/learning-a-new-skill-is-easier-said-than-done/ 
  2. Langvin (2012), The Four Stages of Learning, Langevin Blog, Jan 9th, 2012
  3. Chapman, A (n.d) Conscious competence learning model matrix – unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence”. Business Balls.   .http://www.businessballs.com/consciouscompetencelearningmodel.htm
  4. Will Taylor (2007) Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007
  5. Conscious Competency – The Mark of a Competent Instructor – The Personnel Journal – Baltimore , July 1974, Volume 53, PP538-539 – [supplied by The British Library – Shelf Mark 6428.065000]
  6. Cheetham, G. & Chivers, G. (2005) Professions, Competence And Informal Learning, Edward Elgar Publications

About Raman K. Attri

Raman K. Attri is a complex learning strategist, a transformational training consultant and a researcher with over 20 years of experience in engineering, management and technical training. His primary area of focus is to provide strategic directions to organizations in implementing next-generation competitive training strategies. His research interests include complex learning, accelerated expertise and advanced instructional design. He is also the founder of Personal Resonance©, a research forum with a charter to transform proven research studies on accelerated expertise into organizational training practices. His training and learning solutions are strongly founded in system engineering techniques applied to large-scale training programs. Equipped with scientific training methods, he innovated two research-backed complex learning frameworks namely SEAT© (Systems Engineering Approach to Training) and ProBT© (Proficiency Based Training) methodology primarily meant for organizations to accelerate development of complex cognitive skills of their employees systematically at faster rate. He is highly passionate about learning. He holds Professional Doctorate in Corporate Training, MBA in Operations Management and Executive MBA in Customer Relationship Management. Currently he is pursuing another Doctorate degree from Southern Cross University. His personal interests involve writing and painting.
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