The Competence Cycle Model of Learning

While learning new skills, people experience various emotions in different phases of their learning procedure. In the beginning, people may fail to realize what they need to learn. But, gradually, as they learn about a subject and the learning it requires, some may give up while others may stick with it.

Identifying how people feel at every stage of the learning cycle will help them handle the ups and downs. It can be done through the Conscious Competence Learning Ladder.

Better performance success has been linked to companies with well-defined competency models. According to a competency report by SHRM, 93% of 500 executives stated that competency models were essential for the successful performance of their company. 

So, what is the Competence Cycle Model of Learning?

Noel Burch developed the Competence Cycle of Learning in the 1970s. It showcases two aspects that affect human thinking while they learn a new skill: awareness (consciousness) and competence (talent level).

As per the model, people move through these levels while developing a new skill:

  • Unconsciously unskilled: they are ignorant that they don’t possess a skill or need to learn it.
  • Consciously unskilled: They know they don’t possess the skill.
  • Consciously skilled: They know they possess the ability.
  • Unconsciously skilled: They are unaware they have the ability but don’t focus on it.

Unconscious Incompetence

Before a person performs a new task, they are unaware of what they will do. During this phase, the person does not possess the ability, knowledge, and skill to perform the task suitably.

The stage of unconscious incompetence may persist for years. So, to start learning something new, a person needs to know that they cannot perform that skill.

Conscious Incompetence

The next phase of competence is conscious incompetence. It starts when a person develops awareness of what they don’t know or cannot perform.

This stage is the most uncomfortable for most people because they discover they have not yet mastered a talent and cannot carry out a specific job appropriately. It can lead to embarrassment and the discovery of shortcomings.

But, it is essential to identify the incompetence. It helps them train and eventually gain a better competence level. Just with stage 1, people get stuck here for a long time. However, the time depends on their inspiration to learn, speed of learning and accepting their shortcomings.

This stage’s most important feature is knowing the keys to competence. The next thing is choosing capable people to learn from.

Conscious Competence

This is the phase where the actual learning begins. Conscious competence is the phase where people work to enhance a particular skill, but they are still new.

The stage is all about trying, failing, learning, and getting better. Gradually, slowly but surely, their ability will grow; however, they have a long way to cover. The major characteristic of this stage is to stick by and steadily work. Do not give up!

Unconscious Competence

As the worker consistently works and learns, gradually, they will reach this stage. In this phase, they don’t have to think about the activities he’s good at. Dissimilar to the earlier phases, the progress to unconscious competence is quick. Consistent practice and repetition ensure things happen fast. After entering this phase, an unconscious competent worker feels good about their work.

What happens at each stage?

The four stages of competence, also known as the Competence Cycle of learning, are part of a learning process working on the principle that people, before beginning to learn something, don’t know how much they are aware of a topic and what they know.

Once they start learning, they go through different stages and eventually reach unconscious competence.

Level 1: Unconsciously incompetent: Starting with the driving lessons.

A car is just a vehicle that carries you. You don’t know what to do or have the required skills to drive it. You are not conscious of how you can learn it. But the fastest way to move to the next phase is to know that you should learn it and see value in driving.

Level 2: Consciously incompetent: Started with the lessons.

You know a car will carry you anywhere you want, and you know you can learn it, but you still haven’t developed the skills. You know you’re incompetent to drive it and wish to fill in the knowledge gap.

Level 3: Consciously competent: Well, the test is cleared

You practice how to drive a car and know the skills needed to do it. You consciously learn every skill and ensure you don’t commit any mistakes. You include flexibility in your learning and possibly start driving without help or support.

Level 4: Unconsciously competent: You’re a perfect driver

Every time you drive, you drive like a pro. You are flexible and amend your driving style as per the conditions. You have become quite good at driving and unconsciously drive well without getting distracted by loud music or calls.

Why do you need to know which stage you are at?

Understanding all the stages of learning and identifying where the person is will help them enhance the results and accelerate the chances of reaching where they want to be.

Once the stage is clear- the coaching plan can be segregated into three simple steps:

1st step: Find out where the person is. Ensure to ask questions to know all about the person, their stage, and how brilliantly they are performing.

2nd step: Personalize the coaching plan depending on where the person is. Choose the right coaching tools accessible to personalize the coaching plan to develop their skills and reinforce their progress.

3rd step: Assess the improvement. Check consistently for growth and focus on behaviors that highlight that the new skill is being implemented in their life.

While coaching thought leaders, the first stage is the most important- the dawning awareness that while they may have innovative ideas, developing and delivering them accounts for a fully new proposition. The speed at which a person moves from one stage to another depends on their willingness and dedication to practice.

And the shift from conscious competence to unconscious competence needs precise coaching. Once the stage is clear, the coach can introduce materials, tools, and practices to enhance the learning efficiency of the candidate.

How can coaches help you identify which stage you are at?

Knowing what stage the person is in will help get the right coaching and internalize data so that you can reach the next development phase and eventually help gain mastery of ability.

A skilled coach can efficiently identify the stage where a person stands as an employee and knows exactly how to help the employee advance to the next level.

Learning- Unconscious incompetence

Regardless of the skill a person wants to develop, this is the first stage to begin. A coach can identify if a coachee is in this phase or not by checking these criteria:

  • The coachee is unaware of the presence or relevance of the skill.
  • The coachee is unaware that they lack the concerned skill.
  • The coachee may not accept the use or relevance of the skill.
  • No development or learning takes place because of the unawareness of the coachee.
  • The complete concentration of the employee and the coach is to transcend the conscious competence phase by showcasing the skills and benefits it will bring to the employee and company.

Coaching at stage 1 helps the coachee acknowledge the significance of developing the skill. If the employee doesn’t understand the value of learning the skill, they will not put any effort into it.

Learning: Conscious Incompetence

Stage 2 is the phase when the coachee knows about the skill being taught. Some criteria that help a coach know the stage are:

  • The coachee knows about the relevance and presence of the skill.
  • The coachee knows that they lack the concerned skill.
  • The coachee appreciates the value of learning the skill and understands that by learning the skill, their overall potential will improve.
  • The coachee commits to learning the skill and proceeds to the conscious competence stage.

This is where reality sets in for the candidate. An employee who once thought of himself as a new set of skills humbles an all-rounder.

The movement to stage 3 is pretty fast if a skilled coach coaches the employee and monitors the candidate’s progress. The transition is smooth as the candidate can now perform the skill on command.

Learning: Conscious Competence

Stage 3 includes most practicing and training time to develop the skill. At this phase, the coachee can perform the skill but needs a good amount of focus and effort to perform it. Some criteria that help a coach know this stage are:

  • The coachee can steadily perform the skill
  • The skill is tough but not impossible for the coachee.
  • The coachee can perform it without help.
  • The coachee can exhibit the skill but cannot coach others.
  • Ideally, the coachee consistently practices the skill and commits to reaching the unconsciously competent stage.

Developing a skill may take months and sometimes years of focused practice. Consistent efforts and practice are the best way to transit from stage 3 to stage 4. Candidates who find it tough to shift from unconscious competence may not be practicing the skill efficiently and need a better coach to fine-tune their skills and boost their understanding.

Learning: Unconscious Competence

Stage 4 is when the coachee has practiced enough skill to make it their second nature. Now they need minimal to no concentration to perform it. Some criteria that help a coach identify the stage are:

  • The skill becomes so common that it reaches the unconscious brain part of the coachee.
  • The coachee can perform skills along with other tasks.
  • The coachee can teach the skill to another person now.
  • Practice and consistent exposure are needed to maintain the skill.

The final stage of learning is a perishable phase depending on the skill type the candidate has developed. With constant evolution, coachees may have to re-sharpen their skills to improve and meet new standards.

How to use uExcelerate to find the right coach for you?

A good coach will help you create a plan that progresses an employee to unconscious competence in any skill without compromising other abilities and competencies. The development of skills needs good coaching and great dedication.

This is where uExcelerate comes in!

uExcelerate ensures that a coachee is assigned a coach that’s a perfect fit as per their needs to ensure they get the most out of their coaching programs. uExcelerate features a state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning algorithm that provides recommendations depending on your preference.

It helps match the coaches with the coachees to generate the best coaching relationship results. uExcelerate’s efficient AI system works on different aspects such as abilities, personality, and experience to generate appropriate recommendation results for the coachee to choose a coach suitable for them. It offers up to three recommendations. The coachee can pick one of the three coach suggestions that fit their needs best and schedule a discovery session.

During the discovery session, the coach and the coachee can get to know one another and set the agenda and goals for the coaching sessions. It helps the coachee get deeper knowledge about their coach and ensures the coach possesses the skills they wish to learn.

uExcelerate helps the coach and coachee to run a personalized coaching program end-to-end to generate efficient coaching results. It helps you find the best coach suitable for you and then develops a customized personal development plan. Coachees can self-assess and evaluate their transformation and progress along with feedback from their coach.


The model of learning helps the coachee grow from the novice stage to the stage of a Professional, and coaching is the art that helps enhance and develop the skill ultimately leading to success and fulfillment.

With coaching, employees can successfully learn a skill and grow better and stronger with time. Hiring a coach will help you pass every stage with ease and deal with issues gracefully. A good coach will bring precision to your learning cycle and help you transit from one stage to another smoothly. Reach out to uExcelerate today to start your journey to success. Email us at [email protected].

uExcelerate ACSL Lab

uExcelerate ACSL Lab