The Learning Process

A male teacher holds up a small glass or plastic container resembling a petri dish. Two students (one male, one female) stand beside him watching. The male student is wearing black gloves and is hand is extended touching the dish.
The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.

—Audre Lorde, writer and civil rights activist

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the stages of the learning process
  • Define learning styles and multimodal learning

Stages of the Learning Process

Consider experiences you've had with learning something new, such as learning to tie your shoes or drive a car. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after some struggling it became second nature. These experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in the following four stages:

Stage 1 Unconscious Incompetence: This will likely be the easiest learning stage—you don't know what you don't know yet. During this stage, you mainly show interest in something or prepare for learning. For example, if you wanted to learn how to dance, you might watch a video, talk to an instructor, or sign up for a future class. Stage 1 might not take that long because you don't know what you don't know.

Stage 2 Conscious Incompetence: This stage can be the most difficult for learners, because you begin to register how much you need to learn—you know what you don't know. In stage 1 the learner only has to discuss or show interest in a new experience, but in stage 2, he or she begins to apply new skills that contribute to reaching the learning goal. In the dance example above, you would now be learning basic dance steps. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice. You know how much more you need to learn.

Stage 3 Conscious Competence: This stage is about being aware of how much you need to practice what you have learned. You are beginning to master some parts of the learning goal and are feeling some confidence about what you do know. For example, you might now be able to complete basic dance steps with few mistakes and without your instructor reminding you how to do them. Stage 3 requires skill repetition. You know know what you need to practice.

Stage 4 Unconscious Competence: This is the final stage in which learners have successfully practiced and repeated the process they learned so many times that they can do it almost without thinking. At this point in your dancing, you might be able to apply your dance skills to a freestyle dance routine that you create yourself. However, to feel you are a "master" of a particular skill by the time you reach stage 4, you still need to practice constantly and reevaluate which stage you are in so you can keep learning. For example, if you now felt confident in basic dance skills and could perform your own dance routine, perhaps you'd want to explore other kinds of dance, such as tango or swing. That would return you to stage 1 or 2, but you might progress through the stages more quickly this time on account of the dance skills you acquired earlier. [2]

five children in swimsuits on the edge of a pool, watching an adult demonstrating a swim technique. A woman is seated with a paddleboard next to the children.

Learning Styles

Kyle was excited to take a beginning Spanish class to prepare for a semester abroad in Spain. Before his first vocabulary quiz, he reviewed his notes many times. Kyle took the quiz, but when he got the results, he was surprised to see that he had earned a B-, despite having studied so much. 

Kyle’s professor suggested that he experiment with different ways of studying. For example, in addition to studying his written notes, he might listen to some audio of his vocabulary words—perhaps by looking up an online video created by a native Spanish speaker.

Identifying Learning Styles

Many of us, like Kyle, are accustomed to very traditional learning styles as a result of our experience as K–12 students. For instance, we can all remember listening to a teacher talk, and copying notes off of the chalkboard. However, when it comes to learning, one size doesn't fit all. People have different learning styles and preferences, and these can vary from subject to subject. For example, while Kyle might prefer listening to recordings to help him learn Spanish, he might prefer hands-on activities like labs to master the concepts in his biology course. But what are learning styles, and where does the idea come from?

Learning styles are also called learning modalities. Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues proposed the following three learning modalities (often identified by the acronym VAK):

  1. Visual
  2. Auditory
  3. Kinesthetic

Examples of these modalities are shown in the table, below.

Visual Kinesthetic Auditory
Picture Gestures Listening
Shape Body Movements Rhythms
Sculpture Object Manipulation Tone
Paintings Positioning Chants
Neil Fleming's VARK model expanded on the three modalities described above and added "Read/Write Learning" as a fourth.

The four sensory modalities in Fleming's model are:

  1. Visual learning
  2. Auditory learning
  3. Read/write learning
  4. Kinesthetic learning

Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing (visual aids that represent ideas using methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, symbols, etc.). Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Read/write learners have a preference for written words (readings, dictionaries, reference works, research, etc.) Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world, science projects, experiments, etc.).

The VAK/VARK models 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. Many educators consider the distinctions useful, finding that students benefit from having access to a blend of learning approaches. Others find the idea of three or four "styles" to be distracting or limiting.

In the college setting, you'll probably discover that instructors teach their course materials according to the method they think will be most effective for all students. Thus, regardless of your individual learning preference, you will probably be asked to engage in all types of learning. For instance, even though you consider yourself to be a "visual learner," you will still probably have to write papers in some of your classes. Research suggests that it's good for the brain to learn in new ways and that learning in different modalities can help learners become more well-rounded. Consider the following statistics on how much content students absorb through different learning methods:

  • 10 percent of content they read
  • 20 percent of content they hear
  • 30 percent of content they visualize
  • 50 percent of what they both visualize and hear
  • 70 percent of what they say
  • 90 percent of what they say and do

The range of these results underscores the importance of mixing up the ways in which you study and engage with learning materials.

Defining Multimodal Learning

You might discover that you prefer more than one learning style. Applying more than one learning style is known as multimodal learning. This strategy is useful not only for students who prefer to combine learning styles but also for those who may not know which learning style works best for them. It's also a good way to mix things up and keep learning fun.

For example, consider how you might combine visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles to a biology class. For visual learning, you could create flash cards containing images of individual animals and the species name. For auditory learning, you could have a friend quiz you on the flash cards. For kinesthetic learning, you could move the flash cards around on a board to show a food web (food chain).

The following video will help you review the types of learning styles and see how they might relate to your study habits:

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.

  1. Mansaray, "David. \"The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert.\" 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016."
  2. Mansaray, "David. \"The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert.\" 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016."

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