Competence, expertise and novice learners

Evaluating competence always begs the question, “Competent for what?” A physician’s assistant may be competent for diagnosing some conditions, but incompetent when it comes to more complex problems or performing surgery. For this reason, novice learners and even experts who take on the challenge of an unfamiliar area of study will repeatedly pass through four stages of competence.

Four stages of competence (
• Unconscious incompetence
• Conscious incompetence
• Conscious competence
• Unconscious competence

Unconscious incompetence is when learners have no idea of just how incompetent they are. My experience with this was on a family trip when I drove past a factory with white smoke billowing from several stacks. My wife asked me, “What do you think is made in that factory?” Before I could offer a guess, our four year-old said with absolute confidence, “Clouds.” I looked at our nine year-old daughter and we both shook our heads slowly. We both knew the effort to convince her otherwise would have been in vain, especially since all of the evidence was in her favor. Our four year-old daughter was unconscious of her incompetence.

Conscious incompetence is when learners have learned enough to realize there is much that they do not know. In this phase, learners are faced with the choice of either working hard to develop competence, or working even harder to conceal their incompetence. In the Cloud Factory above, my nine year-old did not know what the factory produced, though she was absolutely certain it was not clouds.

Conscious competence is the reward of hard work and successful practice, and is not based on false confidence, nor is it contaminated with groundless pride and arrogance. This competence is founded on personal ability with an appreciation of its current limitations.

Unconscious competence is the result of hard work and successful practice to the point that performance has become automated below awareness. Someone with this level of competence does not have to “think” about a cognitive task when it is performed. That does not mean that their brain is no working, it just means it does not have to consult the much slower language and awareness sections. Problems arise however when an expert is asked to explain how the cognitive task was accomplished. Educators who are unconsciously competent are routinely confronted with the challenge of transferring their own expertise to learners who are consciously incompetent.

Moving a learner from conscious incompetence to conscious competence is a gradual process that requires a series of incremental steps. Applied learning activities can be used to advance this process. Early activities should focus on remembering and understanding facts and concepts, while subsequent activities build upon this competence and focus on applying that understanding to real-world scenarios. As such, each learning activity should take into account its targeted learner’s current level of competence with regard to knowledge and thinking skills. From this beginning point, the activity can then be designed to move learners to the next level of competence. As I will discuss later in the section on Cognitive Load Theory, each activity should impose a manageable amount of mental work because cognitive demands that are unmanageable by learners only bring about frustration, and detract from learning.