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:

What I Learned from Orange Theory: A Lesson on Motivation

I began taking Orange Theory workout classes at the beginning of 2018. My goal was to get in a bit of shape. Little did I know how much they would transform my view of motivation and learning.

The First Class

I’ll be honest. My first Orange Theory class was pretty rough. I got a stitch in my side about 30 seconds into running on the treadmill. (The treadmill block usually lasts 25 minutes.) Then I didn’t know the proper rowing technique. Then I had to receive a lot of adjustments during the weight training block. Thankfully, the class motivator was super encouraging and didn’t make me feel bad about being slow as a tortoise.

The Theory

Orange Theory’s claim to fame is their heart rate monitor system. People wear the monitor around their stomach or wrist. This monitor provides data including heart rate, calories burned, and number of splat points. It’s encouraged that people earn at least 12 splat points per class. The more splat points, the greater number of calories burned for a longer time. All of this information is displayed next to your name in a block on a tv screen. Your block changes color depending on how hard your heart is working. The more times your block turns orange, the more splat points you earn. The red block signals people to slow down.

The whole class, I worked my buns off. Yet, I couldn’t make it to the orange zone. I would watch my block turn from grey to blue and then green. Then it would just stop. And I didn’t earn a single splat point. I felt a bit discouraged after that first class. I had never sweat that much during a workout in my life! The next class, I reasoned, would be better.

10 more classes, and I still couldn’t make it to the orange zone or earn a single splat point. I nearly vomited one class when a new motivator realized I was the only one without any splat points and pushed me too hard. After that class, I decided not to wear my monitor anymore. I haven’t worn it since.

A few months later, the company announced they were changing their formula so the monitors would display more realistic data. OT realized some of the numbers were making people like myself work too hard. They probably also realized it was super discouraging.

What Now?

To this day, I really enjoy the classes. I love challenging myself and having an encouraging coach there to help with my form. I don’t think about my calories or splat points, but I can see how this could be encouraging for others. Even though there’s a new monitor formula, I still feel burned by the whole experience. It took a long time to believe that I was capable of doing a killer workout, despite the contrary (misleading) data.

This was a huge lesson for me. The inability to earn splat points left me discouraged about my abilities. And then it struck me that many learners probably feel this way, especially when they are novices. As an instructional designer, we have a lot of power. We design the learning experiences for students, and sometimes we include systems that may be more demotivating than motivating. What can we do? Here is my brainstorming on the topic…

  1. Get feedback early and often, especially from students. Are they motivated by the way content is presented? Is there a system in place that rewards students for certain things? Do they like it?
  2. Recognize that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Consider encouraging students in multiple different ways such as direct feedback, personal messages, etc. Find out early on how learners are motivated and then tailor curriculum when appropriate.
  3. Have students provide feedback during the experience. Do they experience certain pain points that decrease motivation? Why?


Orange Theory image from Wikimedia Commons: