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The 3 Stages of Learning That Help You Learn Effectively

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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We’re learning every day of our lives from the moment we are born. Without realizing it, we’ve been employing at least one of the three stages of learning to gain knowledge and grow as individuals: 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 stages 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.[1]

Elements of Cognitive Learning graphic

    This can also be considered the first stage of learning where the learner observes and listens and makes connections based on knowledge s/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

    Implicit learning takes place when the learner is unaware of the fact that they’re actually learning. It does not involve specific instructions, but 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: they learn in a social setting without being taught by an instructor.


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

    Explicit Learning

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

    A good example of this type of learning would be learning to ride a bike. The person wanting to ride the bike 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

    Collaborative learning 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.

    Cooperative Learning

    In the stages of learning, cooperative learning 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.

    Cooperative learning is best observed in an environment where practical knowledge is also gained. Playing fields and science laboratories are good examples of cooperative 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[2]. 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 it 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

    In the stages of learning, this is a form of associative learning where the brain is trained to associate a certain desired consequence to an action.[3]

    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 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 that 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 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.[4]

    Learners at this final 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 through 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.

    The 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 to be 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 unsplash.com


    [1]Grade Power Learning: The Benefits of Cognitive Learning
    [2]Simple Psychology: Bobo Doll Experiment
    [3]VeryWellMind: Classical Conditioning Overview
    [4]Professor Jack C. Richards: Autonomous Learner
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