Stages of Learning

Stages of Learning

Even though motor skills vary widely in type and complexity, the learning process that individuals go through when acquiring various motor skills is similar. Paul Fitts (1964) designed three stages (or phases) of learning: the cognitive, associative, and autonomous stages.

A ‘swimming motor skill’ at SwimSense has been outlined by our Challenger 1 and 2 award system. We require our swimmers to be in the Autonomous phase to achieve that particular sticker. Swimming is a complex movement pattern, where many facets need to come together in a building block fashion to be able to move through the water. We are asking our children to complete many tasks at once to achieve an overall swimming skill. For example, Swimming freestyle (before even learning to breath) requires the brain to assimilate right arm and left arm movements at different times, legs to kick straight (which doesn’t come naturally, especially to boys), all while maintaining breath control and keeping your head in the right spot for the ultimate body position.  If they are not at this stage, due to the complexity of swimming, it is detrimental to move the swimmers on to the next skill. Hence the repetitive nature of learning to swim.

Here are the phases of learning in more detail:

Phase 1 – Cognitive or Understanding Phase of Learning

This stage requires all of the swimmers attention and focus to complete the task. This is a trial and error process where the child is learning what happens when they do the action, or when it is incorrect. All movements are controlled in a relatively conscious manner. The result of using conscious control strategies is that the movement is relatively slow, abrupt, and inefficient and that performance is rather inconsistent.

Regular feedback is important at this stage. We encourage the use of video feedback, however please refer to our policy for filming and only film your child in the lesson. Also, seek permission from the Teacher first (and preferably the other child/dren’s parents in the lesson). The children in Challenger 2 can also look at the videos of best practice with the ipad on poolside.

Phase 2 – Associative Phase of Learning

Once the learner has acquired the basic movement pattern, the second, or associative, phase of learning begins. This is also known as the “practise phase”. Performances are becoming more consistent as motor neurons have been formed in the brain in their memory bank.

While the simpler parts of the skill now look fluent and are well learned, the more complex elements requires most of the spare attention. For example, they may be working on our ‘Independent arms’ sticker in Challenger 1. This requires the swimmer to complete 4 arm circles that are in full range (down to the thigh, recover high and reach out far), as well as have their head down looking at the bottom, with a kick that has straight legs. They may be able to produce 4 ‘good looking’ arm circles, however putting it all together requires quite a lot of practice.

In this phase, the swimmer is starting to get a sense of internal ‘kinaesthetic’ feedback when they perform the skill well. They are starting to detect and correct their own errors. Inefficient co-contractions are gradually reduced, and the movement becomes more economical.

Phase 3 – Autonomous Stage of Learning

In the final stage of learning, performances have become consistent, fluid and aesthetically pleasing. The motor skill involved are well learned and stored in the long-term memory. There is now spare attention which can be focused on other skills required to complete a ‘swimming skill’. To retain the new skill at this level, it must be constantly practiced to reinforce the neural pathway this newly acquired skill has laid down on the brain.


Table 1.1 Stages of Learning

Stages of Learning Characteristics Attentional Demands
Cognitive (verbal) Movements are slow, inconsistent, and inefficient Large parts of the movement are controlled consciously
Considerable cognitive activity is required
Associative Movements are more fluid, reliable, and efficient Some parts of the movement are controlled consciously, some automatically
Less cognitive activity is required
Autonomous (motor) Movements are accurate, consistent, and efficient Movement is largely controlled automatically
Little or no cognitive activity is required