Published on December 23, 2019

The 3 Stages of Learning That Help You Learn Effectively

The 3 Stages of Learning That Help You Learn Effectively

We’re learning every day of our life from the moment we are born. Without realizing it, we’ve been employing at least one of the 3 stages of learning to gain knowledge actually: cognitive learning, associative learning or autonomous learning.

Each of these stages of learning is very different from the other. These stages can be taken progressively, where one stage comes before the other, or individually where each is a complete learning methodology on its own. In any situation that involves learning opportunities, a person looking to acquire knowledge makes a subconscious decision to gain it a certain way, based on any one or a combination of the three stages mentioned above.

If you want to learn faster, it is important that you know which stage of learning you’re currently at and what steps to take next to advance to the next stage of learning.

Stage 1: Cognitive Learning

Cognitive learning works towards developing an overall understanding of skills. It engages students in the learning process, getting them to use their brain more effectively to make new connections from knowledge already stored in their mind. It improves comprehension, helps develop problem solving skills and promotes long-term learning.

This can also be considered the first stage of learning where the learner observes and listens and makes connections based on knowledge he has already gained. This knowledge could have been acquired through conscious or subconscious learning.

Knowledge in the cognitive stage can be acquired through any of the following methods:

Implicit Learning

It takes place when the learner is unaware of the fact that they’re actually learning. It does not involve specific instructions, rather, it happens with verbal and visual cues and usually takes place in a social setting.

A child learning to speak is an example of knowledge gained implicitly: in a social setting without being taught by an instructor.

This type of learning is retained well over years and is resistant to psychological changes in people. It is better for skill reproduction and is independent of age and IQ.


Explicit Learning

It happens when a person actively seeks out opportunities to learn. This may or may not involve a teacher. This also requires verbal and visual cues.

A good example of this type of learning would be learning to ride a bicycle. The person wanting to ride the bicycle may attempt to learn on their own, mimic the actions of another person (visual cues) or may ask for instructions from someone who already knows how to do so (verbal cues).

Explicit learning conditions the brain to solve problems and learn new concepts.

Collaborative Learning

It is the type of learning most commonly used in educational institutes. It involves varying degrees of collaboration between the learner, the instructor and other students.

An instructor provides knowledge and helps students make sense of it. The students are then asked to discuss the newly acquired information, connect it to knowledge gained earlier and use it in coursework.

Collaborative learning increases higher-level thinking, verbal communication and leadership skills in a student while promoting self-esteem, acceptance of differing views and student-teacher and student-peer interactions.

Co-operative Learning

It is structured in a way that students have to interact with each other and the instructor – where instructions are followed and best skills and qualities are observed and learned.

Co-operative learning is best observed in an environment where practical knowledge is also gained. Playing fields and science laboratories are good examples of co-operative learning settings.

This type of cognitive learning helps increase retention power and self-confidence and build relationships. It offers opportunities for social support and helps improve attitude and tolerance towards authority and even those who are different to others.


Observational Learning

Observational learning is the acquisition of knowledge through observation and imitation of others.

It is an effective learning methodology as it makes learning an enjoyable activity, encourages social interactions, enhances memory and influences mannerisms.

Albert Bandura proved the effectiveness of observational learning with his Bobo Doll experiment where children who saw an adult hitting the doll hit it too. Those children that did not see the Bobo Doll being hit did not hit it either.

This type of learning can be positive, such as learning compassion and sportsmanship or negative such as learning to fear snakes or spiders just because someone around us is afraid of them.

Learn more about observational learning in this article: How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively

Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning happens when a concept has been understood fully and is being applied in practice. It is a goal-oriented method of acquiring knowledge, and is the opposite of rote learning.

A good example of this style of learning would be a chemistry student who learns in class that mixing certain chemicals will result in an explosive reaction. This knowledge will stop him from mixing those chemicals in the lab.

Meaningful learning is a durable style of learning as it requires linking of new information to previously acquired knowledge. It is constructive and encourages learning through different techniques.

Like cognitive learning, the next stage of learning can also be taken as an independent methodology or as the second step of a three-phase learning system.


Stage 2: Associative Learning

Associative learning is where the brain is conditioned to learn or modify responses taking into consideration stimuli offered. This type of learning occurs when new and old information can be linked to each other, giving weight to the theory that ideas and experience reinforce each other.

Associative learning emphasizes acquiring knowledge from the environment and reinforces optimal behavior. It conditions the brain to expect consequences and make decisions based on these expected outcomes. Let’s take a look at the different conditioning of associative learning:

Classical Conditioning

It is a form of associative learning where the brain is trained to associate a certain desired consequence to an action.[1]

At school, it could be extra time for games if the students finish assignments in advance, while in an office it could be a cash bonus if employees meet their targets. In a home environment, it could be extra screen time for kids when they finish chores.

Classical conditioning emphasizes learning from our environment and nurtures critical thinking. It can help to modify undesirable characteristics in the learner and can be used to help overcome phobias.

Operant Conditioning

Operant condition is the idea that certain actions will result in reward or punishment. This type of conditioning offers an easy way to learn new lessons.

The mind can be trained to expect a reward for every book finished (homework pass) or punishment for coming late to school (detention).

This article Positive Motivation vs Negative Motivation: Which One is Better explains the concept of associative learning in the light of positive and negative consequences.

Extinctive Conditioning

Extinctive conditioning is when the brain is trained to not expect a previously expected response when certain conditions are not met. A comedian scrapping jokes that don’t elicit laughter anymore is a good example of extinctive conditioning.


You can use this type of mind conditioning to modify existing behavior which may be undesirable.

Discriminative Conditioning

Discriminative conditioning is when the brain is trained to reliably expect a certain outcome to a stimulus.

An example of this would be training a dog to jump at the command “jump” and not when commanded to “sit”, “stay” or “heel”.

Moving on from associative learning, we come to the third stage – and if going step-by-step the final stage – of learning, this is the one that gives a learner the most freedom.

Stage 3: Autonomous Learning

At this stage of learning, learners gain knowledge through independent efforts and develop an ability to inquire and evaluate away from teachers and peers influence. Teachers or mentors here are not the instructors, but facilitators.[2]

Learners at this stage have enough knowledge and the power to control their learning. They are looking for sources that will help them make decisions based on their own understanding of the matter.

Also, learners are responsible for setting targets and goals, and making sure their understanding is clear in order to achieve the learning targets.

Autonomous learning motivates learners to learn on their own will. They have the freedom to plan, execute their own learning plan and create strategies to achieve their goals. They are aware of their learning style and can self-evaluate.

Bottom Line

Each stage of learning is crucial in its own way. The 3 stages of learning — Cognitive learning, associative learning and autonomous learning are proven successful. If you combine and use them as a progressive way to acquire knowledge and skills, you can become a lifelong learner and always learn at your own pace.

More About Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Avel Chuklanov via


[1] VeryWellMind: Classical Conditioning Overview
[2] Professor Jack C. Richards: Autonomous Learner

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

Do you forget stuff every now and then? Are you trying to enhance your memory but not sure how?

All you need is the right memorization techniques to make the most of your memory.

The human brain is fascinating. More specifically, the vast interconnections within our mind. Mendel Kaelen compares the human brain to a hill covered in snow,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.”

The intent of Kaelen’s discussion is to think of new ways to temporarily flatten the snow. Kaelen remarked,

“The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The idea here is to temporarily rewire your brain, or as Michael Pollan remarked in How to Change Your Mind,

“The power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility-entropy-in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly settles.”

So, how can we rewire our brain allowing deeply worn connections to disappear and new connections to form? The answer is quite simple. We must change the way we store information in our mind.

    Let’s examine 5 specific memorization techniques that will change the way you think and remember information.

    1. Build a Memory Palace

      What is it?

      The method of loci[1] (aka memory palace) is a method of memory enhancement using visualizations with the use of spatial memory. It uses familiar information about your environment to quickly recall information. It is a method that was discussed by Cicero in an ancient dialogue called De Oratore.

      How to use it?

      Ron White discusses in How to Memorize Fast and Easily: Build a Memory Palace, that it’s essentially a room or building that you have memorized and you use locations in the room to store data. Ron informs us,

      “You memorize locations in a room and then you later go back to those locations to retrieve the data that you want to remember.”


      An easy 5-step example, in the form of a Wiki, can be found at Let’s examine the the steps:

      • Step 1. Choose a place that you know well. For example, your house or office.
      • Step 2. Plan the route and pick specific locations in your route. For example, your front door, bathroom kitchen, etc.
      • Step 3. Decide what you want to memorize. For example, geography, list of items, answers for a test, etc.
      • Step 4. Place one or two items, with a mental image, and place them in your memory palace. Exaggerate your images. For example, use nudity or crazy images forcing it to stick in your mind.
      • Step 5. Make the image into a mnemonic.

      You can learn more about this technique here: How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything

      2. Mnemonic

        What is it?

        A mnemonic is a memory device that aids in retention and/or retrieval of information. Mnemonic systems are techniques consciously used to improve memory by helping us use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization easier.[2]

        How to use it?

        Mnemonics make use of retrieval cues to encode information in our brain allowing for efficient storage and retrieval of the information. The trick is to learn how to easily create mnemonics. If you find that you struggle with creating your own, try the following website: Mnemonic Generator.


        I recently came across a video using mnemonics to memorize countries. Memorizing Countries using Mnemonics is a video created as an introduction to a class for using memory techniques to learn the names of countries on maps.

        I actively search for videos that provide enormous educational value, yet receive very little exposure. At the time of this writing, this video has received less than 4k views. Let’s examine the video.

        Goal: Create a mnemonic to memorize the countries in the Caribbean (just the countries you need to learn).

        Step 1. Looking at a map – write out each country (for which five were chosen).

        Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

        Step 2. Write the first letter of each country vertically.







        Step 3. Create a sentence or phrase.






        Cubs just hate doing push-ups. (Cuba Jamaica Haiti Dominican Republic Puerto Rico)

        3. Mnemonic Peg System

          What is it?

          According to, a mnemonic peg system is a technique for memorizing lists and it works by memorizing a list of words that are easy to associate with the numbers they represent.[3] These objects are the pegs of the system.

          How to use it?

          The trick is to create a Number Rhyme System with each number having a rhyming mnemonic keyword.


          Let’s look at an example of a Number Rhyme System:[4]

          0 = hero

          1 = gun

          2 = shoe


          3 = tree

          4 = door

          5 = hive

          6 = sticks

          7 = heaven

          8 = gate

          9 = line

          Another technique like the Peg system is the Number Shape System.[5] Here you are assigning mnemonic images based on the shape of the number. Watch the following video for an example of this system: Number Shape System for Memorizing Numbers.

          4. Chunking

            What is it?

            Chunking is a way to remember large bits of information by chunking them into smaller pieces of information. We are more likely to then remember the information when we put the small pieces back together to see the entire picture.

            How to use it?

            In the video Chunking – A Learning Technique, we can see that there are several ways to chunk information.


            Let’s examine a simple example using a nine-digit number.

            Step 1. What is the number you are trying to remember?


            Step 2. Cut the number into smaller pieces through chunking.


            081 – 127 – 882

            Let’s look at one more example from the same video.

            “Piano teachers will first demonstrate an entire song to students. They will then ask their students to practice one measure at a time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go on to the next measure. After all chunks have been played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected.”

            5. Transfer of Learning

              What is it?

              Transfer of learning is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. Authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us about the transfer of learning,

              “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

              How to use it?

              There are two specific ways to use it:

              1. Vertical Transfer (aka Far Transfer). Think of learning something in grade school and applying it another grade or later in life.
              2. Horizontal Transfer (aka Near Transfer). Think of learning a concept in history and applying it in math.


              I provide a detailed step-by-step example for this technique in this article:

              Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

              The Bottom Line

              The key to using the techniques discussed here is to remember that we must actively think about information.

              We cannot simply drill information into our brain through rote memorization. We must change the way we think about memorization. We must find a way to “shake the snow-globe” in our mind or flatten the snow so that we can create new learning paths.

              Or as Derek and Laura Cabrera point out, we must insert “Thinking” into the equation,

              “Information X Thinking = Knowledge”

              More About Enhancing Memories

              Featured photo credit: Nong Vang via


              [1] Remember Everything: Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci
              [2] The Learning Center Exchange: 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory
              [3] Art of Memory: Mnemonic Peg System
              [4] Art of Memory: Number Rhyme System
              [5] Art of Memory: Number Shape System

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