Facilitating learning in practice
Facilitating learning in practice

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Facilitating learning in practice

3.2 Skills acquisition – the ‘conscious competence’ model

The phases in Reynolds’ model are not dissimilar to those described in the ‘conscious competence’ model: each model reflects a series of steps or routes through to possible competence. In this model, a significant feature is the focus on conscious as well as unconscious learning. Although the origins of the ‘conscious competence’ model are somewhat uncertain, the model remains essentially a very simple and helpful explanation of how we learn in stages. Very simply, learners are thought to begin their skill development at Stage 1 ('unconscious incompetence'), passing through Stage 2 ('conscious incompetence') and Stage 3 ('conscious competence'), ideally to reach Stage 4 (‘unconscious competence'). The simplicity of this model reinforces the need to ensure that as you work with students, you need to assess their stage of development rather than make ill-founded assumptions.

An article by Chapman (2015) suggests that learners will not be able to achieve ‘conscious competence’ until they have become consciously and fully aware of their own incompetence. It goes further to suggest that failing to recognise and respond to appropriate staged learning is the ‘fundamental reason for the failure of a lot of training and teaching’. The authors argue that it is essential to establish awareness of a weakness before attempting to begin training and move learners through the stages towards conscious competence. The authors argue, perhaps correctly, that people best respond to training when they are aware of their need for it and can see the personal benefit they will derive from achieving it. If you’d like to read the full article, it’s available online [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Table 2 came from the article described above. You might be aware of other models presented in similar ways, such as the Johari Window – a tool that supports insight on levels of self-awareness. It is not appropriate to go into more detail about the Johari Window here, but a short article has been suggested as part of recommended reading for this week if you wish to follow this up further.

Table 2 Conscious competence matrix (Chapman, 2015)

  Competence Incompetence

Stage 3: Conscious competence

  • 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 they are thinking about it – the skill is not yet 'second nature' or 'automatic'.
  • The person should be able to demonstrate the skill to somebody else, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person.
  • The person should ideally continue to practise the new skill and, if appropriate, commit to becoming 'unconsciously competent' at it.
  • Practise is the single most effective way to move from Stage 3 to Stage 4.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

  • 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 realises 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.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

  • The skill becomes so practised 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.

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

  • 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.

Pause again now to reflect on the value and insight that this information might offer as you prepare yourself to support and develop others in a mentor role.

Activity 4 Applying the ‘Conscious competence’ model

Timing: Allow 45 minutes

Imagine you are working with a student who is on a pre-registration nursing programme. They have recently moved to your practice speciality and they have told you that they have little experience with many of the specialist skills that they expect to see. You seek to teach and evaluate their learning in a relevant clinical skill.

The skill you decide upon does not have to be highly complex; it could be, for example, blood pressure monitoring or undertaking nutritional assessments.

Once you have selected your teaching episode, complete Table 3 (which you can also download as a Word document) based on the conscious competence model to describe how you think the student might present at each stage of the model. Use the information presented in Table 2 above to guide your thinking if you consider this to be relevant. At each stage, identify strategies that you would use to move the student forward to the next stage where and when relevant.

Table 3 Reflections on the conscious competence model

Stage of model Anticipated behaviour of the learner Your strategies for helping progress the development of the learner
Unconscious incompetence
Conscious incompetence
Conscious competence
Unconscious competence


Let’s just look briefly at an example of two possible responses to this activity, with the assumption that you work with older people and that you have specialist interest in ensuring that individuals have access to, and receive, adequate nutrition. On this occasion you decide to teach the student about the importance of nutritional assessment and dietary management.

During Stage 1 (unconscious incompetence), you probably identified that you need to use time observing and questioning the student on what they do or don’t know. Fundamentally you find that at this stage, the student appears to know little about the special needs of the older person related to nutrition. You see no evidence of any assessment being undertaken on the suitability of food offered, nor of their health history, the condition of the mouth or any feeding challenges associated with impaired physical ability or weight. Your responsibilities at this stage are about ensuring public safety by effectively monitoring the student, offering instruction to aid teaching and (where necessary) intervening to promote timely evidence-based practises. At this stage you probably would have identified the need for timely feedback so that learning opportunities (which may not have been recognised by the student) are provided.

Moving to Stage 3 (conscious competence), you should have suggested that you would expect to see the student demonstrate effective skills in all areas related to nutritional assessment. At this stage, you might consider the student to be rather ‘rule-based’ than demonstrating the ability to practice spontaneously; but you are confident that they are safe. In terms of your role, rather than a teacher you probably saw yourself more as a facilitator who encourages the student to arrive at a place where these practices become so ingrained that they become normal activities requiring very little thinking.

You are likely to have ongoing opportunities throughout work and life that will inform your teaching and facilitation, and determine the ways that you choose to support the practices of others. The tools you have explored so far may provide you with a framework to support and develop others. This is a core activity of mentors, regardless of where you are practising your mentoring skills.

Mentorship programme

If you are studying this resource as part of an NMC mentor preparation programme, use the reflections from this activity as evidence towards demonstration of achievement of competencies in your practice portfolio on KG006 Facilitating learning in practice: mentorship portfolio assessment.

So far you have examined what your learning development looks like and thought about tools that help you break down and define how skills are developed. In Section 4 you will look at another model – that of Bloom – that again helps you to break down learning. Bloom’s model is an important one to examine, as many programmes of study use adapted versions of this model to construct learning outcomes. These form the basis of assessment and evaluation.


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