Do you want to unlock the mystery of the learning process―as a teacher or a student?
Everyone can learn―you only need the secrets of how this takes place and make it work for your mind.
This is a comprehensive guide to the learning process.
We’ll unpack how you progress from clumsy starts to achieving mastery and give you tips on making this process smoother, more effective, and more fun.
What Is the Learning Process?
A process by definition implies time, a period of practice towards achieving mastery and translating knowledge and information into actual skills.
Learning processes are not like The Matrix, where you can download everything you need to know.
There is no magic wand to bestow the skills of an expert overnight (sad, but true).
Learning takes effort―it’s a challenge you take on, driven by a certain purpose, and you engage with what you don’t know until you know it so well that it becomes natural and easy. The experts refer to it as the four stages of learning.
Stages of the Learning Process
1. Unconscious Incompetence
The first stage―unconscious incompetence―is where you know nothing about what you are setting out to learn. (Ignorance is bliss here, right?)
Your desire and motivation aren’t set yet, and you have no idea what you’re getting into.
It’s like setting out to learn a style of dance with zero experience. You will need to get acquainted with coordination, memorizing rhythms, and a vocabulary of movement before you can combine them into learning a real dance. Your consciousness must absorb completely new information.
2. Conscious Incompetence
In the second stage, conscious incompetence, the discomfort increases because you’re now aware of what you don’t know (i.e., ignorance is no longer bliss because there’s work to be done).
You feel clumsy, attempting something you know you can’t do yet. There are mistakes, mishaps, and some lucky successes.
Learning feels tedious and painstaking at this stage. It’s slow, and you’re tempted to say that your many mistakes will determine your ability to succeed (not true!).
You will have moments where you get it right and then get it wrong again as you practice methods and techniques, finding your feet.
3. Conscious Competence
At last, learning feels less awkward and embarrassing when you reach conscious competence. Your understanding and awareness have grown; you have gained knowledge and have practiced applying it.
Your ratio of errors to successes decreases slowly but surely, although you still exert concentration, focus, and genuine effort to get it right.
If we continue with the dance analogy, you are finally beginning to understand how movement works, how different steps flow together to create different sequences, feelings, expressions, and pictures.
It’s satisfying to make progress, and you’re more motivated now. But you also know the magic isn’t quite happening yet. You’re still sweating too much.
4. Unconscious Competence
Finally, you reach stage 4―unconscious competence. This is where you’ve put in ample time, effort and practice to attain a decent level of expertise on a subject or skill. You understand how it works; you’ve gained knowledge and insight into whatever it is you’ve learned, and it no longer requires so much concentration.
The sense of achievement is very enjoyable and may keep you going at it for the sheer joy of having “conquered” the learning process now.
Once you can complete an entire dance from memory without forgetting any steps or straining yourself to get the technique exactly right, the skills begin to come naturally, like a habit.
Bonus Stage: Flow/Mastery
The best stage ever―let’s call it the bonus stage of flow/mastery―is when the magic enters your unconscious competence. There is no thought of effort, technique, or result. You are fully immersed in the skill or activity, forgetting all about time and other worries.
You’re absorbed in the sheer joy of it, expressing yourself without judging yourself or your steps. It is a place where the mind gives over to the heart, to the need every human being has to just be.
Watching someone in this state is satisfying― you’ve seen an artisan craft pottery as if conjuring a dream with his fingers; a ballerina moving almost weightlessly across a stage (while in reality exerting insane strength).
It’s a stage that can truly feel like the peak of existence.
How We Learn Matters
Did you know that we don’t all learn the same way? Every person’s brain is so unique that learning strategies are entirely their own.
That said, certain principles help us understand which ways help different people learn better in a different way.
- Visual learners―using pictures, diagrams, maps, charts, videos, illustrations, etc.
- Auditory learners―using sound, spoken words, or music.
- Verbal (linguistic) learners―learning through spoken or written words (typical of traditional teaching style).
- Movement/kinesthetic learners―using movement of the body and hands, particularly the sense of touch.
- Logical/mathematical learners―using systematic, logical methods and reasoning.
- Social learners―interacting with groups and talking to others as part of the learning process.
- Solitary/independent learners―using self-directed learning and/or individual tasks.
When you take these different learning styles into account, it becomes easier to make learning easier by incorporating more than one style at a time.
Combining styles in different activities expands the learning experience and process, learner engagement, and understanding of the material. Of course, it also makes it more enjoyable.
Some learners will approach learning by watching or listening to someone explain it; another learner will prefer to dive in and learn by trial and error. Other students like doing research alone.
All these styles are valid. Learning is more efficient if you don’t force one style at the expense of another.
Leverage These Tips to Become an Effective Learner
1. Beef up your memory
The ability to remember information is part of the learning process. You need to be able to recall information to connect it to the tasks at hand. Work on your memory using memory games, techniques, and tools to flex that mental muscle. A keen memory makes learning easier and faster.
2. Embrace proactive lifelong learning
Life is full of change which requires flexibility and constant life-long learning to handle. Approach it positively and proactively. Take courses or classes to learn new skills or hobbies. Try new experiences, switch between topics, give your brain some variety to work with!
3. Practice learning in different ways
Remember the different learning styles mentioned earlier? Try using one of the learning styles out of your comfort zone. If you usually prefer visual learning like reading, try switching to a more hands-on approach, or listen to an audiobook instead.
4. Become the teacher
One of the best ways to consolidate what you’ve learned and make sure you understand it well is to teach the material to someone else. To do this successfully, you will need to make the information your own and communicate it in your own words. This also improves your memory.
5. Apply relational learning
Relational learning is when you connect new information to concepts you already know. This will either expand your current knowledge or adapt to accommodate the new knowledge. It’s important to connect it, either way.
6. Get your hands dirty
You may find this approach intimidating if you’re a perfectionist, but it’s well worth using anyway. Permit yourself to make mistakes. Aim to learn by doing, and be prepared for it not to go right the first time. Active learning strategies are powerful.
7. Revisit your notes
When you’re learning new information, don’t underestimate the value of referring back to your notes. Revision helps you make sure that you are not learning something the wrong way and then have to unlearn it again to fix it. Check your notes!
8. Quiz yourself
Testing yourself and revision go hand in hand. Work through some new material and then test yourself. See how much you can recall and apply correctly, then refer to your notes to see what you missed. You are in control of how well you master the material this way.
9. Don’t multitask
Multitasking gives you the feeling of getting more done, but this is simply not true in learning. Your brain is wired to be most effective and productive when focusing on learning one thing at a time. Master the first step before moving on to the next one.
10. Set clear goals
Your brain loves a plan, a clear horizon to focus on. You can learn well with a clear, measurable, and simple learning goal in mind.
For example, if you want to learn to paint, break it down into smaller chunks-master colors first, then strokes, then techniques, and so on.
11. Build upon existing knowledge
Use your existing knowledge as a base to go further. Don’t simply add knowledge by rote memorization. If you’ve mastered learning a language, try adding some literature study in that language, or visit the country where it’s spoken.
12. Rethink what you think you know
The adage, pride goes before a fall, applies to learning and knowledge as well. You will never know it all. It would be disappointing!
Consider what you know from various perspectives, discuss it with people from diverse backgrounds and who have different views from yours.
Above all, be curious.
The Learning Process for the Educator
As an instructor, you want to do everything you can to help student engagement. Here are some tips you can implement to achieve that.
1. Utilize learning taxonomies
Use different learning taxonomies―resources for instructional design. You can take various approaches to evaluate student learning and mastery of the training materials. Consider how they interpret and apply it, don’t just assess for a specific grade or a pass or fail.
Combining taxonomies enables you to look at your students’ learning more holistically, covering the bases of memory, definition, analysis, interpretation, application, and implementation. All these criteria contribute to what a student can achieve in real life with what they’ve learned.
2. Make use of concept maps
Concept maps are a tool that empowers students to take ownership of how they learn and understand the material. Let them create their own visual expression (charts, diagrams, maps, etc.) of what they do and don’t understand.
It’s also useful for you and the students to see the intersections between what they already know and how they connect it to the new material and address any gaps or wrong connections. Concept maps force the mind to say, “What do I make of what I’m learning?”
3. Assess student performance
Evaluate your students’ progress, but without sticking to just one form such as a standard test (those have their place, but think outside the box too). Let students choose what they can do for you to assess, i.e., a presentation, a video, an interview, drawings and concept maps, or a project.
Letting students have a say in assessments inspires and motivates them to give their best in a way that’s specific to their needs and learning style. This is an important part of active learning.
4. Let students express how they’re thinking
Help the students express their thinking by giving them assignments and prompts without pressure to “fit in the box.” Show them what metacognition looks like by sharing your own thinking.
Helping students express their thinking freely is the best encouragement you can give as an instructor because independent thinking is the womb of innovation. New ideas take shape when students express their thinking, turning from abstract concepts to implementable, real plans.
5. Create digital portfolios
Discuss creating digital portfolios with your students so that evidence of their progress can be stored and frequently reviewed.
Digital portfolios help analyze the mastery of the material. It also gives the students an overview of how far they’ve come.
6. Plug students into networks
Encourage students to connect to networks aside from their classmates and teachers. The learning process is broadened by interaction with other students and communities relevant to what they are studying.
Jumpstart the Learning Process
Learning is dynamic, fluid, and full of potential.
For every learner, learning has a different outcome and a personal meaning.
And being an instructor in any form is an honor because you are part of a process that helps form a person, their skills, and their future.
Use the tips in this article to encourage yourself and your students to find that zone where magic connects with mastery, where new potential is born.