Moving Through the Four Stages of Competence
by Ali Kinkade

Any time you learn a new skill, whether that’s ballet, Spanish, self-care, or the ACT, you move through four stages of competence:

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence

Knowing these four phases can make your journey to mastery much easier. Notice that there’s a phase between "unconscious incompetence" (this is when you’ve taken your first ACT or SAT practice test not knowing what you’re doing wrong or how to fix it) and "conscious competence" (this is when you’re remembering and using all of the strategies and skills you’ve been learning in prep on your practice tests). That phase -- "conscious incompetence” -- frustrates students to no end!

If you’ve taken ballet, as I did one ill-advised semester of college, you know this second phase well. Let’s say you see a ballet and are impressed by the prima ballerina’s perfect pirouette, and some part of you may think you could probably do that. How hard can spinning gracefully on the ball of your foot really be? Then, you get to a ballet class, and the teacher tells you about things you didn’t even know were a part of ballet: you need strength training, you need flexibility training, you need to improve your posture, you need to pay attention to your lines, you even need to hold your hands in a specific way. You leave class feeling no closer to a perfect pirouette -- and maybe even like it’s less attainable than before -- but actually, you are closer, because now you’re conscious of your gaps in knowledge.

Similarly, during ACT or SAT prep, there will be a time when you're getting grammar questions or math questions wrong and it's almost more frustrating than when we first started prep, because you KNOW that you're doing something incorrectly and it feels like you aren't making progress -- or even that you’re backsliding, because now those things you don’t know are staring you in the face.

Take comfort in the fact that it's actually a step in this psychological progression of learning, and that knowing the blind spots that you need to work on is an important step. Reaching this step will not reflect in your numerical scores right away, but knowing the specific formula you were missing on a math question is a lot closer to mastery than not knowing where to start at all on that math question. Especially on something as strategy-heavy as standardized testing, this awareness leads to success.

The next phase is “conscious competence”: you know what you need to do and you’re able to execute it, and you’re starting to score in your target range. It can be good to continue doing practice tests at this point to move from that “conscious competence” place, which takes more energy and is easier to throw off-balance if something goes wrong, into “unconscious competence.”

“Unconscious competence” is a great place to get to if we have time for that exact reason! This is when the application of a skill you’re learning becomes intuitive. I often have students come to me after a practice test or a real exam when they have deep and flexible understanding of the strategies and skills necessary for success, and they’ll tell me they don’t really know how they did, that it almost seemed “too easy.” If you’re used to working really hard and then a Science section just flies by, it feels like you’re doing something wrong. However, you’ve actually reached that fourth phase of competence! Congratulations.

If you feel stuck in any of the first three phases, we’d love to help. Reach out and let’s figure out a strategy to get you to intuitive mastery!