37 The Learning Process

David Evans


What you’ll learn to do: describe factors of the learning process

a woman reading her laptop

The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.

—Audre Lorde, writer and civil rights activist

By the end of this section, you will be able to identify the stages of the learning process. What you learn, how you learn, and what you do with that learning are all part of the journey of being a college student. You will also learn what learning styles are and why you will encounter multimodal learning in college.

Stages of the Learning Process:

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe theories about the stages and dimensions of learning

people skating at a skate park

Consider experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as how to skateboard or cook a favorite dish. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after struggling a bit, it became second nature. What is important to remember is that something you consider easy now was most likely really difficult at first. Your college classes may be the same way. At first, you may struggle, and then eventually you’ll become competent. If you think about learning in stages, or in steps, you’ll see that these experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in four stages.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

This stage will likely be the easiest learning stage—you don’t know, or you are not conscious or aware of, what you do not know yet. During this stage, you mainly show interest in something or prepare for learning. Stage 1 may not last that long because you don’t know what you don’t know. You might ask yourself, what do I need to learn?

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

This stage can be the most difficult for students because you begin to register how much you need to learn. You start to learn how much you do not know. At this stage, you now know what you need to learn. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice. You might ask yourself, how much more do I need to learn?

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

During this stage, you are beginning to truly understand some parts of your learning goal and you gain some confidence about what you do know. In other words, you are aware of what you know, and you’re ready to improve. Stage 3 requires skill repetition. You might ask yourself, what skills do I need to practice in order to feel more confident?

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

This is the final stage in which you have successfully practiced and repeated the process so many times the action can be performed without thinking. Think about something you used to not know how to do and now can do it without thinking, maybe riding a bike or perhaps cooking pasta or noodles. As a learner, you may still need to practice constantly and reevaluate which stage you are in so you can keep learning. You might ask yourself, which skills do you already have that will help you progress? [1]

Beyond Learning Stages

Patricia Alexander, a leading education theorist, has advanced a comprehensive framework to address the topic of the learning process that goes beyond understanding the learning process as discrete steps. Instead, her theory suggests that the learning process is more like the reciprocal relationship of a river and its surrounding landscape; the learner both changes and is changed by the learning object. Alexander’s theory especially makes sense given that each learner is different: student 1 and student 2 can attend the exact same class and have the same course materials, but will learn differently.[2]. Why is that?

The River Metaphor white water rapids in a river

Think of the stages of learning as a river. There is a “dynamic and reciprocal relationship between the ever-moving and transformational river and its surrounding environs.”[3] For example, a river’s flow is changed when moving into an uplift of land or a set of rocks. Conversely, when the river overflows its banks, it can scour the curves of the land to create canyons and pools. The river affects its environment and is affected by its environment.

The river is another good way to think about the stages of learning. In the same way the river brings together the dynamic of the flowing water and the river bank, and the transformational nature of both in an on-going way, the learning process too sees the complex interactions and transformations among the learner, the object, and the resulting “product” of learning. When we look at learning as a process, we see a change taking place.

Four Dimensions of Learning

Further, in this transformational perspective of the stages of learning, we can think of four components or dimensions of this interactive system:

The What of Learning

There is always a what that is being learned or that is in the process of change.

For example, Momiji is learning how to skateboard (the what). She has some experience riding snowboards, but wants to be able to ride a skateboard to work two blocks away.

The Where of Learning

By the where of the learning dimensions, we are talking about the physical, social, and cultural environment that influence learning.

Momiji decides to hang out at a nearby skateboard park to watch the experienced riders and maybe get some tips from them (the where). She quickly finds herself being immersed in a new world of athletic tricks, new language to describe the moves, and a new lifestyle of skateboarding.

The Who of Learning

The who of the learning dimensions involves the characteristics of the learner as it relates to biological, cognitive, and experiential (experience) factors. We know that not all learners will learn as well or as quickly as others, and this learning dimension would be a key factor.

After several weeks of daily workouts at the skateboard park, Momiji begins to notice a change in herself. She has become a bit stronger physically due to the training and finds she no longer has to focus on just staying on the board. She has become proficient in skateboarding  basics and is starting to attempt more difficult tricks. She realizes that her confidence level has increased in order for her to attempt things she never would have tried only a few weeks ago (the who).

The When of Learning

The when of the learning dimensions refers to the temporal nature of life. The frame for learning changes not only because the time of learning changes, but the learner herself has changed.

Now two months later, Momiji has a new set of friends and feels a comradeship with them that is nothing like she has felt before. She looks back and smiles when she thinks that all of this started because she wanted to learn to skateboard so she could ride to work (the when).

As these four constructs are intertwined and interactional, we can appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of the stages of learning and the learning process.

Theories of Learning:

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe different theories of learning

Your Style of Learning

Many educators consider discussing learning styles useful when they are working with students. Have you learned about your learning style in the past? Chances are if you went to school in the United States, you most likely discussed your style of learning. What are we talking about when we talk about learning styles? Let’s start with what has traditionally been called the four sensory learning modalities:

  1. visual (seeing)
  2. auditory (hearing)
  3. read/write (textual preference)
  4. kinesthetic (experience)

These models, sometimes abbreviated as VARK, can be a helpful way of thinking about different learning styles and preferences, but they are certainly not the last word on how people learn or prefer to learn. In fact, as we learn more about how we learn, we now have a growing body of research that tells us learning styles are not supported by empirical evidence. In other words, even if you identify as having a style of learning, research tells us that learning styles do not help us learn new material.

What the Research Tells Us about Learning

There is research showing that when instructors adjust their teaching to account for learners’ preferred learning styles, it does not impact learning. [4] This means that there is no such thing as a visual learner. While some people might have a preference to learn visually, anyone can learn visually, just as anyone can learn auditorily or kinesthetically. In fact, if you learn about the same thing from many different sources explained in different ways, you will learn more than if you are only exposed to one single explanation or source. It is important to note that some learners may have disabilities that impede learning in certain modes (blindness impairs visual learning; deafness impairs auditory learning), in which case learners can focus on other modes of learning.

So What?

Let’s say you’re reading this, and you feel very passionately that you learn best by reading or listening. You may feel like you learn best when you listen to a podcast or when you watch a video. Perhaps you remember what you learned when you write a summary. Maybe your best work is when you’re engaging in a group activity.

Maybe you are learning that learning styles are a myth for the first time. Now what? You’re actually in the perfect course since we’re focusing on how we learn as students! Figuring out what works best for you as a learner is why you are taking this course. In college, you will discover that instructors teach their course materials according to the method they think will be most effective for all students. Is there a one-size-fits-all style of teaching and learning? No, so let’s now turn our attention to other popular ways of thinking about learning.

What Is Multimodal Learning?

You may encounter many references to learning styles in other classes, so it’s helpful to know about these theories. It is also widely thought that when you apply more than one learning style, you are engaged in what’s called multimodal learning. Given the research that we have uncovered about learning styles, we now know that this isn’t true. Why is this helpful to know? The multimodal learning strategy is useful not only for students who prefer to combine different ways of learning but also for those who may not know what works best for them.

Models of Strategic Learning

The word strategic suggests the execution of a carefully planned strategy with the intent of achieving a specific goal. The model of strategic learning, as outlined by Claire Weinstein, provides a comprehensive framework for developing appropriate strategies for learning given the unique conditions of each learner for any given learning experience.[5]

The model incorporates the learner’s skill, will, academic environment, and self-regulation. Let’s take a closer look at the definitions for these terms:

  • Skill refers to the learner’s content knowledge, self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and ability to employ effective skills such as goal-setting, active listening and reading, and note-taking.
  • Will refers to the learner’s state of mind. This state includes motivation, how you feel about learning (ranging from fear and anxiety to excitement and joy), beliefs about your abilities, and your level of commitment to personal goals.
  • Academic environment encompasses factors that are external to the individual learner, but still impact the learning process. Examples include access to academic support resources, the requirements of particular classes or assignments, teacher expectations, and the social context in which the learner lives.
  • Finally, self-regulation is how the learner recognizes and manages each of these factors. To be strategic about learning, you may exert self-control in the form of time-management, emotional control, seeking assistance, and/or monitoring progress; a learner who does so is more likely to be successful than one who fails to self-regulate.

In the strategic learning model, the learner is always at the center. Each learner is uniquely situated in terms of skill, will, and academic environment; it is also up to each learner to exercise self-regulation where possible to minimize or work around factors that interfere with learning and maximize those that support it.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important element of self-regulation. It can be defined as the ability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s). Those with high levels of emotional intelligence are able to recognize and reflect on their own emotions and those of the people around them; they are also able to respond to those emotions in ways that minimize negative consequences and support the achievement of intended goals.

Successful Intelligence

While the model of strategic learning focuses on the interaction between individual knowledge, abilities, and environment, other theories place greater emphasis on rounding out one’s cognitive abilities to be able to approach and solve problems in different ways. In his theory of successful intelligence, for example, Robert Sternberg[6] proposes that to be successfully intelligent is to think well in three different ways: analytically, creatively, and practically.

  • Analytical thinking encompasses the ability to think abstractly and process information effectively. Analytical thinking emphasizes effectiveness in information processing.
  • Creative thinking includes the ability to formulate new ideas and combine seemingly unrelated facts or information. It emphasizes the ability to invent new solutions.
  • Practical thinking is the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions to maximize one’s strengths and compensate for one’s weaknesses. It emphasizes intelligence in a practical sense.

Successful intelligence is most effective when it balances all three of its analytical, creative, and practical aspects. It is more important to know when and how to use these aspects of successful intelligence than just to have them. Successfully intelligent people don’t just have abilities; they reflect on when and how to use these abilities effectively.


conscious competence: the more advanced learning stage where we understand and confidently repeat the skills we need to practice

conscious incompetence: the more focused learning stage where we understand what we do not know and will need to learn

unconscious competence: the final learning stage where we can execute a task without thinking because we have successfully done so many times

unconscious incompetence: the initial learning stage where we do not know what we do not know and are perhaps merely curious

multimodal learning: the strategy of employing more than one learning approach, which can be helpful for students who do not have any set ideas about a single approach that works best for them

  1. Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." The Wayback Machine. web.archive.org/web/20170327195133/http://www.davidmansaray.com/becoming-an-expert#disqus_thread.
  2. Alexander, P.A., D. L. Schallert, and R. E. Reynolds. "What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered." Educational Psychologist, 2009, vol. 44(3).
  3. Alexander, P.A., D. L. Schallert, and R. E. Reynolds. "What Is Learning Anyway? A Topographical Perspective Considered." Educational Psychologist, 2009, vol. 44(3), pp. 176–192.
  4. Kirschner, P. A. "Stop Propagating the Learning Styles Myth." Computers & Education, 2017, vol. 106, pp. 166–171.
  5. Weinstein, C.E., D. Dierking, J.Husman, L. Roska, and L. Powdrill. "Developmental education: Preparing successful college students. Monograph ser. #24." The Impact of a Course in Strategic Learning on the Long-Term Retention of College Students, edited by Jeanne L. Higbee and Patricia L. Dwinell. National Research Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 1998, pp. 85–96.
  6. Sternberg, R. J. Successful intelligence. New York, Plume, 1997.


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The Learning Process Copyright © 2023 by David Evans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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