A fellow named Abraham Maslow put forth a theory about four stages of learning. He believed that as we learn, we must move progressively through each of these steps, without skipping any. The formal name for these stages is the Conscious Competence Model. The four stages are illustrated something like this (thanks smart art!)
Stage 1: I do not know what I do not know. What this stage means is that you aren’t even aware of what you need to learn. For example, when you’re considering enrolling in a program, you don’t even know what courses you would need to take for your chosen career – you do not know (you are not aware of) what you do not yet know. However, once you’ve reviewed the program overview, which includes the list of courses and their descriptions, you have an idea of what needs to be learned.
When you begin a course, you may have the course outline with several learning outcomes listed, but that is a brief overview of what you will learn – you still don’t really know what it is, specifically, that you don’t yet know. Once you get into the textbooks and begin viewing the content, you will begin to have a greater awareness of what you will be learning, and you move into stage two.
Stage 2: I know what I do not know. In stage two you are aware of what you need to learn – you know (are aware of) what it is that you do not yet know. This is where the real learning begins! Knowing you are in stage two helps you set concrete goals – you can see what learning you need to do, and organize yourself to do it.
Stage 3: I know what I know. This stage occurs once you’re becoming competent (hence the formal name of this model, Conscious Competence). You know (are aware of) what you now know. However, you do need to think about it as you’re doing it. You can associate this stage to the middle levels of skills learning, or knowledge learning. Because you know you are in stage three, and you still need to think about (be conscious of) what you’re doing, you are able to train or teach another person well. Doing this is also a great way to reinforce your own learning.
Stage 4: I do not know what I know. In stage four, you have learned your work and internalized it, so it’s so second nature to you that you can easily forget what exactly it is that you know. Knowing that you are now in stage four allows you to recognize when you need to take a step back and think about exactly what you’re doing, and perhaps analyze it in order to achieve greater efficiency, or in order to train someone else.