Posted in Adult Learning Theory, Instructional planning

Hang Tight! Learning Curve Ahead!!


Help Adult Learners Metamorphose through the Four Stages of Competency

In an effort to improve training, Noel Burch, while working for Gordon Training International in the 1970s, analyzed adults as learners and found that adults progress through four distinct stages of competency. These stages help a lesson designer or a trainer empathize and visualize the overall progression of the learner’s abilities. Let’s look at Burch’s four stages and consider some strategies to help guide the learner through the tough stuff…
A goal for training is to create a lesson with sensitivity to the adult learner’s needs. Being aware of these four stages of proficiency will guide the lesson towards instructional success.

Reflect on the following stages. Where does the learner fit in this learning curve? Match learner activity with their level of competency.

Noel Burch: 4 Stages of Competency




The first stage is referred to as Unconscious Incompetent, or unconsciously unskilled. The learner is delightfully unaware of the difficulties of the new learning adventure. The learner may be overconfident in their abilities. This is a stage of bliss!

Strategy This first stage is vital to getting the learner to engage. Make sure to give very clear, concise directions to reduce confusion. Burch suggests this stage contains an important opportunity to connect and influence the learner. At this stage, the opportunity is to challenge the learner. Time to shake the unconsciousness out of the learner! Instruction needs to wake them up to what they need to learn.caterpillar-eating-image

Of course, the challenge needs to have the proper degree of difficulty. If confronted with too great a challenge, then the learner will walk away or quit. If the challenge is too easy, then the learner will only passively participate.

Provide a hands-on activity or try out a new skill. Use technology for self-pacing. Some learners will want to skip forward to their level of competence, others will want to slow down. Provide a glossary of reference for those who may need the support to get through this challenge. Illustrate how to find help or tips in this first stage. Provide modeling, background knowledge, and metacognitive strategies to boost the learner towards the next stage. Most importantly, give plenty of positive encouragement!


The second stage is the Conscious Incompetent, or consciously unskilled. The learner’s confidence drops now that they are aware that they have some learning to do!




Strategies: Provide skill building opportunities and encouragement to increase skills and self-confidence. Scaffold the skills to increase in difficulty alongside mastery. Scaling the level of difficulty to increase over time will help improve feelings of competence. Use technology to build skills and introduce collaboration. Working with others will provide opportunities for discussions, camaraderie, and may open the learner to mentorships. Connect the learner to others for support and guidance.


Conscious Competent, or consciously skilled is the third stage. These learners can perform the new skills at a very minimal level and their confidence is still low. It is time for practice, feedback, and more encouragement. This stage is the second golden opportunity to connect and influence the learner. If skill building is not going well, the Conscious Competent learner may perceive that the content is either ineffective or that they are unable to learn. The adult learner is again at risk for quitting.

 catepiller-cocoon-imageStrategies: Design training so the learner can chart their own progress. Use technology to provide formative assessments, allowing the learner to see their progress and receive hints or remediation as needed. One easy idea is to introduce the idea of racing the clock to show the learner improvement.


The final stage is the Unconscious Competent, or unconsciously skilled. The learner now functions with instinct and efficiency as the training is complete.

 Strategies: Encourage the unconscious competent to utilize their new skills by training others or becoming a mentor.


Follow these phases and your learner will emerge on the other end, ready to fly.

Happy Designing!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s