Last Updated on January 27, 2021

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 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


    [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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    Published on April 13, 2021

    How To Find Motivation To Learn Anything Outside of Comfort Zone

    How To Find Motivation To Learn Anything Outside of Comfort Zone

    One of the best ways that we can make sure that we grow and develop as people is to keep learning as much as we can. Learning teaches us some new knowledge and new skills, and it also keeps our brains alert and active. Learning is great, but sometimes you can lose the motivation to get on and study. This can be all the harder if you learn something outside of your comfort zone or something that you wouldn’t usually think to learn.

    The important thing to remember when it comes to learning, whether within or outside of your comfort zone, is that motivation is yours to find. But how do you get the motivation to learn?

    Here are 10 ways to help you find the motivation to learn anything outside of your comfort zone.

    1. Find Out Why You Are Procrastinating

    Procrastination is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t have the motivation to learn. So, working out why you are procrastinating and putting your learning off is one of the first steps to finding your inspiration.

    There are a variety of reasons why you may be placing it on the back burner. Here are some examples:

    • You are worried that you are going to fail.
    • You are finding the learning boring.
    • You are waiting for the perfect time to start.
    • You are feeling overwhelmed.
    • You are not sure where to start.

    Once you know the reasons why you lack motivation, you can start to work on fixing it and getting back out there.


    2. Find Out Why You Are Doing It

    As well as finding out the reasons why you keep procrastinating when it comes to your learning, you also need to remind yourself why you are doing it in the first place. Having this end goal in mind can be all the motivation that you need to get there in the end.

    Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to learn, and you cannot say that yours is the same as someone else’s. This means that you need to think about what matters most to you.

    It could be simply to develop yourself, it could be to take the next step on the career ladder, or it could be to retrain and be something else totally. No matter what reason you have for learning, finding out why you are doing it can motivate learning that you may find you need, helping you to get where you want to go.

    3. Break It Down

    Sometimes, you may lack motivation because you feel overwhelmed by how much you need to do. It may sound obvious, but one of the best things you can do is break down the material into more manageable chunks.

    Think about how much realistically you can fit into one chunk and then assign a period to it. This could be one day or one week, depending on your end deadline. Once you break it down, you will see that it is not as daunting as you were worried that it would be and that you can get it done.

    The important thing to remember is that you are in control of your chunks, which means you can decide how big they are and how often you focus on them.


    4. Choose a Reward

    We are simple creatures by nature, and when we feel that we have done well, we will want some kind of reward. It doesn’t matter what the task is or what we want to do, if we reward ourselves, we will be much more inclined to try harder next time. This can help us to greatly improve our motivation to learn.

    The reward doesn’t have to be anything huge. Sometimes, it can just be your favorite chocolate bar, some free time to read a book, or perhaps even a short session to soak in a nice hot bath. Whatever it is, you will want to try hard if you know something positive is in the future.

    5. Stick to a Routine

    The idea of sticking to a routine might not sound like an exciting way to get you motivated to learn, but the truth is that having a pattern can actually be one of the most valuable approaches to take.

    The thing about routines is that they are something that we can get used to. When you do the same thing and the same kind of time or in the same order, then you will start to think of it as a habit that you do rather than something that you need to put a whole lot of thought into. While you need to focus on your learning, not having to think about the task at hand means that you won’t need to find excuses not to do it.

    6. Seek to Understand, Not Just Memorize

    When it comes to learning, most of the time, you will feel somewhat like a sponge, trying to soak all the knowledge up and keep it in your brain. Of course, this is in part true, but you must try your very best always to understand what you are learning.

    Not only will this help you to succeed in your learning, but it can also help you focus if you are trying to make sense of the topic, rather than just reading through it and trying to memorize it. You will find it much more interesting, which, in turn, helps you stay motivated and push towards your end goal.


    7. Keep It Short and Sweet

    The chances are, you are going to find it hard-going to study for long periods of time, especially if you have lots of other things in your life to focus on. This means that one of the best things that you can do to maintain motivation for learning is to keep it short and sweet.

    When you study in a short burst, you will be allowing your mind to focus on that task and then have a break. This will help you stay motivated, and you can have multiple shorter bursts of learning but spread them out throughout the day.

    8. Realize That You Can’t Stay Motivated All the Time

    While you should do whatever you can to stay motivated, you also need to remember that sometimes, you are just not going to feel it. No one—not even the most successful people out there—will feel motivated all of the time. This doesn’t mean that they are any less dedicated to whatever they want to do or that they stand less of a chance to get there.

    When you recognize that it is okay not to be motivated all the time, you can start to understand what you can do to get that motivation back and drive yourself forward.

    9. Study With Someone

    You may find that being lonely and studying alone is what is behind your lack of motivation to learn. We are social beings, which means that we need to be around others to feel the best.

    This is not only in friendships but also in learning. Having someone else to study with makes you feel much more motivated for learning. Not only will you look forward to your time together, but you can also bounce ideas off of one another. You will also feel somewhat obliged to study with them, which means you will want to learn and want to find out as much as possible.


    10. Look After Yourself

    When you want your brain to work the best that it can, you will need to make sure that you are taking proper care of it. Looking after yourself may sound like the simplest thing, but it can be really worthwhile.

    When you look after yourself, you are thinking about your mental health, physical health, and any relationship issues you may have. There are so many ways you can take care of yourself, and you should know some of the basics if you want to focus on your extra work.

    The main things that you need to remember to do are to eat well and drink plenty of water and other hydrating drinks. You also need to stay active and exercise as much as you can as being active is known to really positively impact how well you focus.[1]

    You also need to make sure that you are sleeping as much as possible because tiredness never goes well with learning. It can make you feel sluggish and lose concentration.

    Final Thoughts

    It really is down to you to find your own motivation to learn. So, what are you waiting for?

    Think about what you are studying, how much time you have, and how you can make things that little bit easier to manage. Then, you can start to ensure that you reach those end goals, whatever they are.

    More Tips on How to Find Motivation to Learn

    Featured photo credit: Chris Benson via


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