Four Stages of Learning and Retention Factors

Effective facilitators and instructional designers, support the stages of learning by helping learners appreciate where they are in the model and then guide them through the subsequent stages.

Let’s quickly review the Four Stages of Learning and then identify some retention factors that increase the probability of moving information into the long-term memory, through those stages.

Four Stages of Learning

This model serves as a helpful reminder of what people go through internally when they are working at mastering something which is new to them. W. S. Howell (1982) described the four stages this way:

The four Stages of Learning

  • Unconscious incompetence is the stage where you are not even aware that you do not have a particular competence.
  • Conscious incompetence occurs when you know that you want to learn how to do something but you are incompetent at doing it.
  • Conscious competence occurs when you can achieve this particular task but you are very conscious about everything you do.
  • Unconscious competence occurs when you finally master it and you do not even think about what you have to do such as when you have learned to ride a bike very successfully.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence (UI)

“I don’t know that I don’t know something.”

People in this stage have a low or non-existent awareness of the need or relevance to learn something. Until the awareness is wakened, they will remain in a state of unconscious incompetence. Many of us are unconsciously incompetent about a number of things in this world, and we are just fine!

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence (CI)

“I know that I don’t know something.”

An area of deficiency becomes apparent and a person realizes that there is something that they don’t know much about. If knowing more would increase their effectiveness, they make a decision to improve and a commitment to learn. Without that commitment to make a change, they will remain in a state of conscious incompetence. And again, we can remain here and be just fine.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence (CC)

“I have learned something, but I have to think about it as I do it.”

After an effective learning intervention that has included Application opportunities, people can use new skill and knowledge without assistance. However, purposeful concentration may be required in order to do so. They can do what is necessary, when it is necessary but only by thinking carefully about what they are doing.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence (UC)

“I know something so well that I don’t have to think about it.”

Whatever was learned has become automatic. Ongoing practice in the real world has ensured that the learning has become fully integrated into the way in which someone does something. Eventually the performer reaches a point where they no longer have to think about what they are doing, and are competent without the significant effort that characterizes the state of conscious competence.

Retention Factors

There are five factors that influence retention:

  • Interest, motivation
  • Repetition
  • Association
  • Use of multiple channels
  • Processing

Interest and Motivation

When learners move from Stage 1-UI to Stage 2-CI, they begin to see that knowing something or being able to do something increases their effectiveness. To help the learners make a decision to improve and commit to learn, an instructional designer begins to build interest and motivation into the learning program and by “hooking” the learners and establishing need and relevance early. Participant Material and Instructor Guides will either have the facilitator ask the learner for the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), or the guide will have the facilitator show or tell what the WIIFM is. WIIFM’s often are examples or activities in the learner’s materials that demonstrate doing the task correctly could mean more money to the learner or organization; improved productivity; time savings; or just simply making the task easier for the learner. The instructional design also supports interest and motivation for the learner through variety, interaction, visuals and examples. Interest and motivation is a key retention factor that increases the probability of moving information into long-term memory, which in turn moves the learner to Stage 3-CC and Stage 4-UC.


Repetition in the learning program helps transition the learner from Stage 2-CI to Stage 3-CC. This is particularly applicable to two components of FKA’s Systematic Learning Process – Testing for Understanding and Application. As an example, in skills training, a good instructional design practice is to have the learner perform a task three times, with less guidance each time. Performing the task with different data or for different scenarios keeps interest during the repetition. The better the learner becomes at completing the task correctly in the learning environment, the better they will be able to do the task back on the job in an unconscious competent manner (Stage 4), as the task moves into long-term memory.


Association is key to retention as it helps the learner make the link between new skills and knowledge and previous learning. For example, explaining how a new process is like something already familiar, aids in the storage and retrieval of information about the new process. Association requires the instructional designer to be knowledgeable about the target population and make meaningful links for them. The facilitator uses these links to allow the learner to feel more comfortable at Stage 3-CC.

Use of Multiple Channels

As instructional designers, it is important to combine different sensory channels to convey and reinforce information – text, graphics, video, audio, etc. As an example, listening to a new song OR reading the words to the song, allows you to remember a few words the next day. Listening to the new song AND reading the words as you listen, increases the number of words you will remember. Use of multiple channels, along with repetition will move the learner from Stage 3-CC to Stage 4-UC.


Processing requires learners to use or transform the new information in the learning program. It allows the learner to move past recall and recognition of information to Bloom’s revised higher levels of Cognitive Processing – Apply, Analyze, Evaluate and Create. The instructional designer will build processing questions to test for understanding in online learning interactions, and the facilitator will use the higher-level questions to test for understanding in the facilitated programs based on the objectives of the program. The processing questions assess the learner’s grasp of the content in the learning environment but they can also support assessment back on the job after the program. Processing questions reinforce the concepts so well for the learner that they don’t have to think about it. Stage 4- UC has been reached.


It is important to remember what stages of learning people go through when mastering something that is new. It is equally important for instructional designers and facilitators to increase the probability of transferring the information into long-term memory by using the following retention factors at the appropriate stages of learning:

  • Interest, motivation
  • Repetition
  • Association
  • Use of multiple channels
  • Processing

FKA President
Michael Nolan