Recognizing Competency in Learners

As people develop a new skill, their levels of motivation and need for support and feedback change. In my Program Design course, we learned about the 4 stages of competence that learners move through, which I wanted to share here.

Stage 1: Unawareness

In this stage, people are unaware (or uninterested) in the need for training. The challenge is to “hook” learners and motivate them to continue. In a Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) course I am developing in Moodle, I ask learners to take part in an anonymous poll. They answer a debatable question: what is the cause of workplace incidents? This helps students consider their background knowledge, and then they are prompted to learn more.

Stage 2: Novice

Learners want just enough information, especially if they are true novices. For example, instead of sharing five strategies with them, share one and see how they do. The point is, don’t overwhelm them. For the online BBS course, I share how to complete a hazard assessment form. I walk them through 3 simple steps, and apply it to a real-life example. Just enough, just in time. Then, it’s their responsibility to apply the steps to a new situation.

Stage 3: Feeling Arrogant

At this point, learners have gained more confidence and mastered some foundational skills. Now, they want to complete their tasks as efficiently as possible. They are open to learning new strategies, but they also want you to get out of their way. Offer guidance and support, but let them choose when they want it. In the BBS course, I show students how to complete a case study. Then, it’s their turn to do one. They can review their notes or access the workbook for helpful tips and strategies if they need, but they run the show.

A note on the name of this stage: Some learners can become overconfident in what they have mastered (and might not realize their knowledge gaps).  However, I would prefer to call this stage “Gaining Confidence.” They are mastering skills and confidence, but may still need extra support. In Vygotsky’s words, they would be in the Zone of Proximal Development.

Stage 4: Feeling Humble

Learners have mastered most of the material, but they are also aware of their limits. They are able to keep pace with the theories and intricacies of the field. They probably even like to learn through discussion, in an informal way. In a Teaching in Higher Ed podcast episode, Todd Zakrajsek talks about how experts can enjoy lengthy lectures and discussions because they are able to follow along. They are also passionate about the topic so for them, an hour-long lecture doesn’t move at glacial speed. This is something to keep in mind. Experts probably require less “active learning strategies” than novices and intermediates learning new material. At the “Feeling Humble” stage, it’s far more interesting to learn from peers or mentors through informal conversation and debate.

At the end of the BBS course, learners complete a Storyline object. In the story, a mentor is available to field questions and provide support, but it’s mostly up to learners to make decisions. They receive immediate feedback on their choices. This is an opportunity for them to reflect on what they have learned and also what they may need to brush up on.


In a face-to-face discussion, you have different strategies available to “read the room.” If students’ eyes start to glaze over, or their body language suggests they are not understanding a concept, it’s time to switch strategies. Online, we don’t really have that luxury. What I’ve started to do in online courses is provide quick check-ins for learners. I’ll ask a question like “How do you feel about ______?” and then give them the option to give a thumbs up, neutral, or thumbs down. Based on their answer, they are then given strategies to proceed.

Other strategies include using badges or certificates to motivate learners. I provide “Read/View Times” at the start of each section, so learners can chunk the content in manageable ways, and they know what they’re getting into. Oftentimes, I’ll begin a module with a relatable anecdote or a humorous slant on a subject to make learners feel comfortable. I’ll ask them questions that aren’t too hard, and then build from there. I find these simple designs make a big difference.

I also like giving “knowledge checks” to students, so they can see if they are on track. Recently, I took a Learning to Learn Online MOOC, and I liked how they structured knowledge checks. Each module ends with about about 8-10 questions. Students provide their answers, and then the course instructor (through writing) provides her opinion. It was very personable, and I enjoyed reading what she had to say. I think it would be really great to provide short video explanations to “warm up” the content.

Final Thoughts

It’s not always easy to consider which stage of competency learners will be at, but in the course design process, it’s important to consider where learners are likely starting at, where they will need extra support and feedback, and when to lay off a bit.

This really boils down to student agency, and being mindful about providing them with “just enough” support.


Letterboard image from Unsplash:

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