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The Stages of Learning

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Learning, and eventually mastering, subject matter is gradual and occurs in stages. Each stage builds upon the next until the subject matter is mastered. Fitts and Posner gave a summary of the stages of learning in three steps: Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous Learning. Self-assessment and personal growth are also very important facets of the learning process. The ability to accurately perceive not only the environment but personal intrinsic factors are a requirement for true mastery.

Stage 1: Cognitive Learning

The first stage of learning requires some significant effort on the part of the learner. The new information must have time to process in the mind of the learner. While the learner is making sense of the information they begin to assimilate the new information with what they already have learned. As the individual begins assimilating this data there is the potential for sparking new patterns of behavior or new ways of thinking, depending on the nature of the material.

As a lifelong practitioner of many styles of the martial arts, the stages of learning become very apparent. The cognitive learning stage is when one first studies form and balance. The movements are very awkward feeling and the instructor may have to correct the individual repeatedly. However through repetition slowly the movements become more natural. The cognitive learning stage involves simply being aware of all the options that student has in combat and in practice.

Stage 2: Associative/Behavioral

In stage two, the individual has been exposed to the knowledge but is still working it into all the other knowledge they have. Sometimes the impact on another part of seemingly unrelated knowledge does not reveal itself immediately. Rather, over time the observer begins to see the connections. Just as experience must be accumulated, so must the understanding of not only the new piece of knowledge but how that comes to affect everything else which is already known. There is still moderate effort being involved because the mind is still making sense of it in relation to everything else. The individual then beings to combine the knowledge with the practice of that knowledge.

Continuing withthe martial arts example, after the student learns the block, punches, kicks, sweeps etc. they begin to practice. They being to learn exactly where they must place their limbs, specific to their own body’s needs. Students will begin blocking and punching during monitored sparring in the safety of the classroom. As they spar they are thinking, “What is the best punch to throw? Is now the time? There will be errors and the movements are not as natural as those of a master.

Stage 3: Autonomous Learning

Autonomous learning, also sometimes called the performance improvement stage, marks the beginning of comfort with what has been learned. The new behaviors become force of habit since the individual does not have to think in order to act. In Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee has a very memorable line that is very applicable to autonomous learning. He says, “Don’t think! Feel!!”. For an individual to no longer have to think about what move should come next, they must be in this final stage of learning. Autonomous learning is also the stage where there should be measurable improvement as a result of being able to naturally apply the learning with minimal effort.

Continuing with the martial arts example, by the autonomous stage the student is prepared to use the knowledge gained outside the safety of the learning environment. An experienced martial artist does not go looking for a fight, in contrast, they strive to avoid it, partly because they are potentially lethal a weapon. In any case, at this stage, the practitioner can defend themselves intuitively by all means necessary. Unlike cinematic portrayals of expert fighters which can last several minutes, a master will take seconds to disable their opponent. There will not appear to be any thought involved and the execution is flawless.

Self-Assessment: Personal Growth as an Organizational Development Practitioner

Personal growth is all inclusive. Personal growth, like the learning stages, is a continual and gradual process that builds upon each new experience. Personal growth entails seeing where there is room for improvement or efficiency and making it happen. This is a very individualized processthat must be tailor fitted to each person’s experiences. Another component of the customized corrections for continued improvement is the ability to objectively study the environment. When the student can clearly see the world around them and what they need to do to make it more productive for them, “creative tension” forms to motivate the desire into fruition.

Personal mastery is not as “personal” as the name suggests. Organizations and employers benefit from personal mastery in the form of increased performance often time in quality and quantity. Perhaps it is part of human nature to build something of value that is going to last. A legacy of sorts that will remain after our mortality catches up to us. It is no mistake that leading corporations invest in their employee’s personal mastery in many ways. This is in keeping with the idea that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The organization wants each individual, or link, so be as strong as possible, which will make the organization stronger as well.

Time Management and Discipline

Note from Ramona : On my journey personal mastery has become a bit of an obsession. Time is our most valuable resource and I do everything in my power to utilize every second in my life with purpose. Sitting in my cubical, waiting for the next call as an entry level rep, I was disgusted that “management” allowed so much wasted time in between calls. So, I used that time to earn my MBA. Now as I am careful to assign duties that can fill that space. Those extra duties turn into leadership roles which grow into promotion opportunities. Watching my team mature and find their path in the company (or sometimes outside) is very satisfying. My consulting business provides a very broad range of services because I have never turned away work. As a result I have experience in everything from publishing to large format printing. The aspect of personal mastery where the individual is never satisfied but always seeks to grow more really resonates with me. My unique personality is rare according to tests like the Myers Briggs Personality assessment, I am an observer, but when I act I really do try to be as perfect as possible. Which brings me to my next point: discipline. It is fantastic to seize the day, but to achieve success individuals must discipline themselves to do what they need to do. For me that is to take the time I need to recharge. Others may need discipline to work when they do not want to. The beauty of it is that each one of us serves a purpose and contributes value. Personal mastery in one’s self should translate into a positive contribution in those around us because we have more to give.

Personal growth as an organizational development practitioner means the each person has the most to contribute to their environments. When we all take personal responsibility to be our best selves the people around use have more opportunity to absorb thinking patters and behaviors that they may benefit from. It is a cycle of constant betterment within the team.

Know Your Team!

Team members also must be open to the interaction and communication of their team. There are not a lot of business majors with a background in anthropology, at least not that I have seen. I think that there should be a minimum requirement on anthropological classes which teach us the Earth's most prolific cultures. There are very basic norms and taboos that those invoking personal mastery should be aware of. This applies to education as well. The concern should not be out of worry that you are going to unwittingly insult someone, but rather the concern should be not to perpetrate ignorance and laziness on your own part. It comes down to being aware of your environment and making notes of your team’s behavior. The concept of awareness reaches far beyond culture but the same logic must be applied to understanding each individual’s background and motivations. Take the time to know who on your team is vegan, practicing Hindu, diabetic etc. if you are going to take your team to lunch. It is actually incredibly important to validate that you have a type of professional affection or at least respect for your team members. With time, the ability to filter out people that don’t fit with the dynamic of the team becomes autonomous.


The stages of learning are a simple guide to understanding the components of knowledge acquisition. They can be analyzed further and broken down, but the concept remains that individuals must strive for mastery out of respect for the individual and the perspective group.

Time management, discipline, and taking the time to know important details about team members will assist on the journey of personal mastery and organizational development. There are so many variables to consider in interpersonal communication and team building. However, these basic principle are a great place to start.


Arnold, R. (2017) Power of Personal Mastery: Continual Improvement for School Leaders and Students. Retrieved here

Fitz, P and Posner, M (1967). Human Performance. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. University of Michigan.

Johnson, T. (2018) Zoom ,4 Man 813. Retrieved from

Lee, B (1973) Enter the dragon. Retrieved from

Robertson, R. (1992) Globalization social theory and global culture. Retrieved here

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (Rev. and updated. ed.). New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.

Wulf, G. (2007) Learning process when acquiring motor skills similar for all individuals. Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Retrieved from

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