How Students Learn - Learning Stages

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Every day, thousands of students turn to the internet to plead for advice on the best way to learn a particular subject (biology, accounting, geometry - it doesn't matter what the subject is, in any student's case).

Many of the replies suggest a specific book, an online course, or some other source of instruction. Others insist that you can only learn via one particular study technique, or another.

This advice is all well-meaning and appreciated. But none of it gets the answer right.

It is indeed true that some instructional sources - and some study techniques - are much better than others. But there is no magic source or technique that is the key to learning a particular subject.

Where everybody goes wrong is in thinking that learning is a single atomic, indivisible activity.

It is not. Learning is a process, a process that progresses through stages.

You weren't taught this in school. Neither was I1. As improbable as it sounds, it turns out that the education community never got around to explaining to students how learning happens.

I had to figure this out on my own. So that leaves it to me to explain it to you.

Learning Stages (and Knowledge Models)

Looked at from a high level, you progress through a series of stages in learning any new subject. As you move through these stages, you develop increasingly deeper levels of understanding of the subject.

If you understand this process, you can track where you are, and what you still need to do, as you learn the new subject. You can also learn how to move through the stages much more quickly, and much more effectively.

The three stages are Introduction, Absorption and Application.

top level learning stages

LS1 (Introduction) is your initial exposure to the concepts that make up the subject. It is simply about understanding the concepts well enough to be able to move to LS2.

LS2 (Absorption) is about mentally "absorbing" the concepts - much like you absorb nourishment from food.

LS3 (Application) is about learning how to use the concepts - solving problems, and completing tasks that require using the newly learned concepts.

As you advance through these stages, you will develop a Knowledge Model. This Knowledge Model is your understanding (in your long-term memory) of the concepts and details that you learned.

You don't need to know the neuroscience behind how this Knowledge Model is represented, or how it gets constructed. But you do need to know that:

  1. the Knowledge Model has structure
  2. the Knowledge Model's structure evolves as you learn the subject

At the end of LS1, the Knowledge Model is very small, and it is weakly held.

LS2 is where the majority of the Knowledge Model gets constructed, as a flow of new concepts (and their details) gets retained, and strengthened, in long-term memory.

But, as you add new knowledge, the Knowledge Model also undergoes extensive restructuring. Combining the new knowledge with your existing knowledge (already in the Knowledge Model, in long-term memory) sometimes changes your understanding of things that you already learned (absorbed).

LS3 contributes further in developing the Knowledge Model, though at a slower pace, and at lesser volume, than in LS2. It is best characterized as consolidation, and refinement, of your understanding of the concepts (and their details).

Activity/Effort/Challenges at Each Learning Stage

Each stage of the process takes a substantial amount of time and effort. Each stage requires different activities and efforts from you. Each stage presents different challenges in developing your level of understanding - at that stage.

LS1: Introduction

LS1 usually takes the form of reading a book, watching videos, attending lectures, etc. It mostly requires that you engage in focused attention2 - undistracted reading/viewing of the introductory materials. Besides this, you might make some provisional notes, or highlight phrases that seem to be important.

LS1 is challenging because nearly everything presented to you is new and confusing. You do not yet understand the parts of the concepts, or how they fit together. Nor do you understand how the concepts relate to your prior knowledge or experiences.

The level of understanding that you develop here is tentative, skeletal. You will not be able to describe what you have learned. You might not even be able to answer questions about it.

Your goal here is simply being able to read through the material without having to stop and reread something, or sidetrack to research any of the parts.

Amid all of this uncertainty, keep in mind that the introductory materials specify what you need to know, and they organize the content sensibly. They serve as a map, and define a pathway for you to follow. LS1 is about following that pathway.

LS2: Absorption

LS2 is what most people think of when they think about the word "learning". They would describe it as "remembering the material" that they were introduced to in LS1. Learning is not just about remembering the material. Remembering is only one part of the process.

It is important to think about Absorption as a single stage, but it is actually a subprocess, with three substages3:

  1. Decomposition - breaking the concepts down into discrete parts
  2. Memorization - committing the decomposed parts to memory
  3. Integration - fitting the memorized parts into the appropriate place(s) in the Knowledge Model, and making connections between the new parts and existing knowledge

all substages

All of these substages are challenging.

Breaking the concepts down is hard because your understanding of them is still new and uncertain. You don't completely understand which bits are essential and which are descriptive (serving to clarify, reinforce or illustrate the essential bits).

Memorization is hard because it must be done in a disciplined way, and because it depends on how well you broke the concepts down.

Integration is difficult because it is largely a subconscious process, and it is thus not within your control4. You can't predict the outcome of the process, or how long it will take to happen.

Integration is also difficult because it depends on how well you memorized the concepts (which depends on how well you broke them down).

More generally, Absorption is hard (as a whole) because you are entirely on your own. Teachers and academia produce resources for learning at the LS1 (Introduction) and LS3 (Application) stages, but not for LS2. Here, you get only the help of referring back to the introductory materials.

What you get out of LS2 - after great struggle - is a holistic understanding of the concepts, and their details. With this new, deeper, level of understanding, you will be able to describe the concepts, to others, from memory, and you will be able to answer questions about the concepts.

LS3: Application

You develop the understanding of how to use (apply) the newly learned concepts through practice - problem-solving, experimentation, testing, the step-by-step building of ever more complex things incorporating ever more of the learned material5.

LS3 is hard for three reasons. First, because it requires understanding and thinking about the concepts in many different ways, most of which you have no prior experience with. Application is a process of trial and error, of encountering and overcoming obstacles. Practice does not mean repetition (at least not simple/mindless repetition). It means structured practice (training), that progresses in both scope and difficulty.

Second, this is difficult because it is something that must be guided by a teacher, or at least an established set of objectives to be accomplished. It is not typically something that you can undertake of your own devising.

Finally, Application is hard because it depends on how well you Absorbed the material in LS2. (Hopefully, by now, you realize that success in each stage/substage depends on how well you did in the prior stages/substages. The stages build on each other as you build successively deeper levels of understanding.)

What you get out of LS3 - after even more struggle - is competence, and comfort, in using the concepts (and their details) to solve problems.

Visualizing Learning Stages and Knowledge Models

In explaining here about how you learn, I have introduced two key concepts:

  • Learning Stages - A process that you undergo in developing successively deeper levels of understanding of the subject that you are learning
  • Knowledge Models - The long-term memory structure(s) that are developed as you proceed through the Learning Stages

To help you better visualize these two things, I will describe them in terms of familiar analogies.

The Learning Stages as a Student in a Foreign Land

It helps to understand the Learning Stages by imagining that you suddenly moved to a foreign land.

LS1, Introduction, describes your arrival in the new land. You know nothing of the terrain or its people, and you don't speak the native language. You may have a travel guide (a textbook) and/or an interpreter (a teacher). But the experience is alien and bewildering. You are utterly helpless without those guides.

In LS2, Absorption, you intently study what you need to know to become independent in the new land - the language, housing options, transportation options, how/where to get food and other supplies, etc.

You supplement introductory materials with books and experts that focus on specific topics of interest to locals, rather than tourists. You draw maps and diagrams to better understand the geography and the systems that you use. You use flashcards to help learn the language.

In LS3, Application, you strike out on your own - you get a driver's license, you get a job, you move out of the dorm into your own home, you form relationships with your neighbors and coworkers, etc. The difficulty of these tasks depends on how well you learned in LS2. But they are also challenging because they differ so much from your prior experiences.

The Knowledge Model as a House

If you likened developing a Knowledge Model to building yourself a house:

In LS1, the house does not exist yet, but you get some sense of what it would be like by studying the blueprints and renderings provided to you by the architect.

In LS2, you build (and furnish) the house. The whole house - the frame, the rooms, and the systems (HVAC, plumbing, electric, comms...) that wend through the rooms. Each day, the house looks different than it did the day before - it evolves. Over time, it starts to look not just more and more like a house, but to look like the house that the architect envisioned.

In LS3, the house is complete enough for you to live in it. But moving in begins a new and different challenge - learning how to live in the house6. In this phase, you make adjustments to the house based on the experience of living in it. You add things, remove things, move things around. These adjustments are usually minor (furniture, outlets...). But they could at times be major (repurposing rooms, re-routing systems...), especially if your source materials and techniques are insufficient to the task.

What Does This Mean for the Student?

As I said near the top, if you understand this process, you can move through the stages much more quickly, and much more effectively.

To be clear, there are many more factors - psychological, environmental, social - that impact the success or failure of a learning experience. The relative importance of any of them depends on the specific student, and the specific situation.

But understanding how you learn, and having a process to follow, is relevant for all students in all situations7. If anything can be described as the key to learning, it is understanding and applying this process.

Aside from understanding the process as a whole, the key takeaway here is the need to understand how to learn in LS2, the Absorption stage. LS2 is the core of the learning experience. But it is also the brick wall that stops your learning in its tracks.

You have never before been taught how to get through this brick wall. You can learn how in our next article, the Learning Stages Study Guide.

Go Deeper

  • Studying in the Learning Stages: A Guide for Students - how to apply the Learning Stages
  • Programming language Learning Stages - how to learn a programming language (or any other technology tool)
  • Choosing Instructional Sources for Each Learning Stage - (coming soon)
  • Choosing Study Techniques for Each Learning Stage - (coming soon)
  • A Teacher's Guide to Understanding the Learning Stages - (coming soon)
  • Understanding Knowledge Models - (coming soon)

  • 1 - When I say that I didn't learn "it" anywhere, I mean that I didn't learn the whole of the Learning Stages that I'm explaining. I learned pieces of this from various sources. Over time, I synthesized them into a holistic framework.
  • 2 - All three Learning Stages require focused attention. But LS1 is best characterized as consumptive. It is passive, relative to the efforts needed in later stages.
  • 3 - Decomposition and Memorization are (together) sometimes referred to as "chunking". Integration resembles what Oakley/Sejnowski teach as "Diffuse Mode Thinking".
  • 4 - Integration can be encouraged, but it cannot be forced.
  • 5 - I said at the beginning of this article that those who think of learning as an indivisible, atomic activity tend to suggest a specific resource, or a specific technique, as the key to learning a given subject. A much smaller subset of them get at the importance of LS3 by arguing that you can only learn by doing.
  • 6 - Most people don't think of living in a house as a learning experience. But it is. How do the systems work? How much natural light does a room get? How does that affect room temperature? Does rainfall flow toward, or away from the house? Ad infinitum.
  • 7 - I acknowledge that there are entire categories of students - developmental disorders, emotional disorders, brain injuries, etc - where either this is not possible, or it is a lower-tier concern. I can't let that distract from the importance of this message for the "normal" (typical) student.


Michael Reichner is the Founder of SRSoterica (this site), and the author of spaced repetition system (SRS) flashcard decks for absorbing the concepts that underlie complex programming subjects.

Discuss this article on the site that it was linked from, or at the SRSoterica subreddit.

Last updated: July 16, 2020

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