Lesson Plans-Conscious Competence

31 Oct, 2006 By: Matt Murphy

Are you aware of your knowledge needs?

With the demands and pressures of daily work, most people fail to recognize that they can and should improve their use of CAD software. An adage says that "you don't know what you don't know." If that's true, how can you recognize your knowledge deficiency and improve your skills?

There are well-known, clear stages of learning—unconscious incompetence through unconscious competence. When I first heard of these stages of learning, I was so intrigued that I did some research so I could better understand my needs and the needs of those I train.

After you gain a better understanding of how people learn and move through the stages of learning, you'll be more aware of your own areas for growth. You'll also have more success with your training and become more productive.

Stages of Learning

The conscious competence model explains the process and stages of learning a new skill. It's a useful reminder that we learn in stages. These four stages are unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

As learners or trainees, you can find yourselves in one or more of these stages at any time in your professional careers. Let me begin by outlining the four stages and how to move from one to another.

Unconscious Incompetence

In the unconscious incompetence stage, people:

  • 1. are unaware of the existence or relevance of the skill area.
  • 2. are unaware that they have a deficiency in the area concerned.
  • 3. may deny the relevance of needing a new skill.
  • 4. must become conscious of their incompetence before development or learning of the new skill can begin.

People are comfortable with their knowledge and skill sets and don't want to change. You're going to need an open mind as you approach new skills and elements.

How can you increase your awareness of what you could learn? You can attend events that showcase demonstrations of new product releases or, better yet, participate in a hands-on product test drive.

Learning events like user group meetings and gatherings such as AU (Autodesk University) are not really training. But in a focused 90-minute session, you can improve your awareness, knowledge and skills to be more productive. I've talked to many who attend classes at AU, and the largest single reaction has been, "I didn't know you could do that!"

Once you realize how much you don't know, you're ready to move to stage two.

Conscious Incompetence

People in the conscious incompetence stage:

  • 1. become aware of the existence and relevance of a skill.
  • 2. are also aware of their deficiency in this area, ideally because of an attempt to use the skill.
  • 3. realize that by improving their ability in this area, their effectiveness will improve.
  • 4. have a measure of the extent of their deficiency in the relevant skill and a measure of what is required for competence.

I like to refer to this stage as the A-ha Principle. Now you know there's more out there. This stage is where you should begin to seek out a more complete training program. Do more research and determine what your options are.

Official software training centers, authorized dealers and other professional-quality training providers understand the product and industry for which you need training. They can also do a needs assessment to determine your skill gaps and build a customized training program around those needs.

Conscious Competence

People achieve conscious competence in a skill when they can perform it reliably at will. Those in the conscious competence stage:

  • 1. need to concentrate and think to perform the skill.
  • 2. can perform the skill without assistance.
  • 3. will not reliably perform the skill unless they think about it—the skill is not yet second nature or automatic.
  • 4. should be able to demonstrate the skill to someone else, but aren't likely to show mastery of it.
  • 5. should continue to practice the new skill, and, if appropriate, commit to becoming unconsciously competent at the new skill.

You are now learning the skill and maybe starting to apply it. The danger in learning any new knowledge or skill is that we do not practice enough, and then don't apply the new skill.

In such cases, people get stuck at the conscious competence stage. Eventually, they revert to their comfortable old methods and techniques and go back to stage two or even stage one. I've seen this happen over and over. The single most effective way to move from stage three to four is to commit to learning and practicing the new skill.

Unconscious Competence

In the unconscious competence stage, the skill becomes so practiced that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain—it becomes second nature. Common examples are driving, sports activities, typing, and manual and other dexterity tasks. People in this stage:

  • 1. can perform certain skills while doing something else, for example, knitting while watching TV.
  • 2. may now be able to teach others the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent, people may have difficulty explaining exactly how they do it, because the skill has become largely instinctual.

This stage is the goal we seek in every task, new skill and activity we desire to excel at. It is also our goal in using CAD software.

Every new software release has elements from all four stages of the conscious competence model. For example, you may be unaware of certain new features, so you are in the unconscious incompetence stage when you encounter them. Likewise, there will be almost certainly be tools that you are familiar with from a previous release. Your interaction with these tools will probably be at a level of conscious or unconscious competence, depending on your existing skill level.

As you approach a new software version, or any learning opportunity for that matter, be aware of the conscious competence model. It may help to think of the first stage as you install the software: most people use a new version in exactly the same way as the old version, completely unaware of or, even worse, ignoring the new features.

If you are particularly sensitive to the concept of unconscious incompetence, you should open the New Features Workshop dialog box and increase your awareness of the productivity features you don't know about. Then open the new dialog boxes and try the new commands so that you are exposed to unfamiliar elements. Strive for conscious competence through training and practice to take your skills to the next level.

I hope this learning model will be helpful to you as you consider improving your professional knowledge and skills.

Matt Murphy is a member of ATCAB (Autodesk Training Center Advisory Board) and a certified technical trainer. He teaches AutoCAD productivity and Training the Trainer seminars for Autodesk University, AUGI CAD Camps and private companies. He can be reached at

About the Author: Matt Murphy

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