Learning Skills: 4 Must Know Models

Its always been the same, those who are skilled get the admiration of the crowds. Painting by Frederick Leighton: Faded Laural, top half.


We are expected to know how to learn, but are never taught. We are expected to grow skills, but are never shown how. That’s why your need to know about skill-based learning.

by Murray Johannsen, May 9, 2016.  Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin,  or by  email.

The Importance of Learning Skills

I remember the words my mother ground deeply into my mind when I was a little boy. Perhaps your mother had similar words. She told me on many occasions, “Work hard and you’ll succeed.” The assumption was that endless hours of 24/7 days working automatically correlated to vast wealth.

After putting these words into practice for many years, it occurred to me that Mom was only half right. My new mantra is, “Work hard; but work smart so you don’t have to work so hard.” And to work smart, we must continually upgrade our knowledge and skills.

Why We Don’t Learn The Art of Skill Development

Almost all theory in a typical management or psychology textbook is not helpful when it come to learning skills. Remember, a textbook is essential a set of research findings. It tells you what, but rarely how.

Let’s take a psychology example. In all introductory textbooks on psychology, there will be a chapter on memory  (Franzoi, 2009). One would think that there would be a great deal of practical application when it comes to improving memory, but this not the case.

In a typical chapter one will find concept backed up with studies on about sensory, short-term, long-term, episodic and semantic memory; and you might even discover a research summary on repressed memory and “forgetting.”

However, few words are allocated on how to improve your memory. And it’s not just missing content, but exercises or assignments will also be nonexistent.

Model 1. Skill-Based Learning: The Legacee Skill Learning Model

“We are expected to know how to learn, but are never taught. We are expected to grow skills, but are never shown how.” — Murray Johannsen

This graphic shows the essential pieces of Legacee’s methodology for learning skills. The concentration consists of a Short Course, 5 Full Classes, and a capstone course.


Discovering Skill-Based Learning 

Sheet Music — the essential theory underlying the ability to play music they way its composer desired. Picture by neurovelho,

Even today, opinion masquerades as science and truths are really delusions. It’s important to conduct due diligence to make sure the theory you think works really works.

Good theory is relevant, practical, detailed and convertible into a behavior. For example, it’s important to understand that many commonly accepted leadership principles are very difficult to turn into actionable behavior.

Discovering Skilled Practice 

The first rule of skill development is practice, practice, practice. After all, you will never get good if you just practice once.


You must practice in a correct manner or you see few gains for the effort. One must not only practice physically, but mentally to get the most from your effort. But unless you happen to be an athlete, you never learn the secrets associated with efficient practice. 

Asking college students to practice something outside of class is really interesting. Some take to it like fish in the water. But others only do what’s needed for the grade. The grade is more important in their eyes then getting something they can use. Some will always try to fake it — just too lazy to practice it seems.

Skill-Based Theory: The First Phase of Skill Development

Before you practice, you must know and understand find theory that works. Such a simple truth, forgotten by many. Many theories are about what but never about how. You can read a textbook on memory and skill not understand how to make yours work better. Discover key tips on how to evaluate theory to discover the sound model needed for  building skills.

Online Course 1: Skill-Based Expertise: What You Must Know to Build Skills Faster 

This course presents many insights useful in: defining skill-based theory. Not all theory is can be turned into a skill. Discover how to tell what works and what does not.

Skilled Practice: The Second Phase of Skill Development

Practicing many hours a day does not guarantee you will get better. It depends on other factors the role of which you must understand if you are to get traction in the slippery slope of building skills.

Online Course 2: Skilled Practice: How To Boost Performance

This program presents a step-by-step format to enhance learning of complex skills. It includes a practice assignments designed to try out new skill development techniques.

The more ammunition in the gun, the better chance of hitting the target. The more academic skill development models you know, the better it is.
 Learning Skills Model 2: Self-Efficacy 
The more ammunition for the gun, the more likely you will hit something. Just like the more skill development theories you know, the more ways you have to develop a skill.

Self-efficacy primarily relates to the belief you have about your ability to learn something new. An individual with a weak sense of self-efficacy will avoid challenging tasks, believe the task and/or situation is beyond their capabilities, and focus on negative outcomes or personal failings. Bandura proposed that a key element of self-efficacy theory is the importance of observational learning and a belief you will succeed. 

Also, Individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy recover quickly from setbacks, view challenging problems as tasks to be mastered, and develop a deeper interest in activities in which they participate in. You might say that they are resilient.

Skills Model 3: Learning The Four Stages of Competence

Woman worker in the Douglas Aircraft Company plant, 1942. Photo by: Photo by Alfred T. P


Another skill learning model has four developmental stages, starting with the unconscious and ending with the unconscious. (Whitmore 2002). In between there are two other stages of learning.

1. Unconscious Incompetence. At this phase, there is no understanding that a problem exists. For example, until one understands mindfulness, being mindless is not a problem.

2. Conscious Incompetence. There is a recognition of flaws and weak areas needing improvement. One still has to pay attention to practice since numerous mistakes are being made.

3. Conscious Competence. Conscious effort continues resulting in improved performance. But as one practices more, conscious awareness becomes less.

4. Unconscious Competence. The learned behavior runs largely without conscious monitoring. One sees a high level of performance with little conscious effort. One example — walking.

5. Mindful Competence.  The model ends with unconscious competence. However, some individuals with advanced mindfulness skills can monitor their automatic behaviors. Therefore, we can have a stage incorporating mindfulness.

Stages of Learning Competence.This modelhas been around for a while in psychology. It has four developmental stages to starting with unconscious unskilled and ending with being unconscious skilled. In between, there is a great deal of learning.


A keyboard on a typewriter. Notice that the position of the keys has not changed.
A keyboard on a typewriter. Noticed that the position of the keys has not changed.

As you get older, you realize that certain habits just aren’t working. For example, you still cannot remember another person’s name after being introduced. Clearly a flawed process. Let’s illustrate this with another example.

The story goes that when the keyboard used in the English speaking world was developed, it was designed to slow typists down, not speed them up. It turns out that in the early days the typewriter, there were mechanical linkages for the strikers hitting the paper. If one would type too fast, these strikers would jam.

So why isn’t there a better keyboard? There is. But people won’t use it since it would take such a long time to unlearn the old and relearn the new.

All of us have an automatic sequence allowing us to write or type letters. It’s almost like the brain hardwires itself for these. But to change keyboards or your signature, you must unlearn the old program and learn a new one. This is harder than it sounds — the mind prefers the old way — always.

Skill Development Model 4: Modeling Behavior


Another major method of learning that should be mastered is modeling. Considered one of the three most important theories of learning in the behavioral school of psychology (along with classical and operant conditioning), it focuses on behavior and how we learn through observation.  

You don’t necessarily need theory to make modeling work. If you want to learn how to eat with a fork, you can just observe how this is being done. However, when learning to use chopsticks, there is a theory of finger placement helpful to understand. 

Using modeling for skill development also works on more complex behaviors. Children learn how to be a father or mother by watching their parents. You can also explain modeling as the fundamental reason the timeless principle known as leading by example works so well. 

Sometimes good theory is not necessary. You just need to be a shrewd observer of human behavior, able to learn by practicing vicarious learning, more commonly known as modeling (Hurst, ND). 

Lets say a teacher says followers should, “Treat leaders with respect.” Nothing wrong with this idea, but it is an abstract principle difficult to turn into a set of behaviors. 

So a good coach would drill down and provide specific behavioral examples. Examples such as:

  • When speaking, use sir, madam or a title with the surname, 
  • Keep your head lower than the other,
  • Speak in a soft tone, and
  • Keep eye contact to a minimum.

Of course this can still be rather vague, so you might have a student model these behaviors from the movie.

a. Modeling Example: Treat Others With Respect

Nothing wrong with the principle, but respect is an abstract concept not easily turned into discrete behaviors. For example, respect is signaled by using sir, madam or a title with the surname. Of course that is not the only thing, you may also have to display humility. Of course, there are other subtle signals as well. The use of the voice and nonverbal communication facial signals and gestures go hand in hand conveying respect.

Sometime good theory is not necessary. You just need to be a shrewd observer of human nature. To practice modeling, you talke a look at the opening scene from the Godfather.

Video: The Opening Scene of the Godfather. This scene shows respect in the Italian culture from the Oscar winning best picture of 1972. You can also learn a great deal about reciprocity and the nuances of how to use power.

References and Resources

Alsop, Ronald (2013). The Crucial Skills New Hires Lack, BBC Capital.

Anderson, J. R. (1985). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. New York: Freeman, page 240-241.

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.],  Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.

Bray, C. W. (1948). Psychology and Military Proficiency. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Gay, I. R. (1973). Temporal Position of Reviews and its Effect on the Retention of Mathmatical Rules. Journal of Educational Psychology, 64:171-182.

Goldsmith, Marshall & Lyons, Laurence (2005). Coaching for Leadership: The Practice of Leadership Coaching from the World’s Greatest Coaches, 2nd Edition, Pfeiffer.

Robbins, S. & Hunsaker, Phillip L. (2008). Training In Interpersonal Skills (6th Edition), Prentice-Hall.

Whetten, David & Cameron, Kim (2010). Developing Management Skills, 8th Edition. Prentice-Hall.

Leadership Skill Development