The 3 Stages of Motor Learning: Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous


If you’ve been to a Musical Performance, you have in all probability been moved to tears at times.

 Whether it’s that scintillating  Piano Solo, or a mesmerising Violin Performance, you somehow emerge from the auditorium doors, a changed person.

Back home, you wonder at how effortlessly those musicians played. Indeed, as though they might as well have done it with their eyes closed!

The reality is not all that different. In all probability, they might have even performed with closed eyes, like a juggler who finds no need to look at their hands. However, did you know that behind all those ‘grand performances’ to which we normally attribute things like ‘intuition’ and ‘talent’, lies something else altogether? None other than the discipline we commonly known as Practice?

No matter what their area of expertise, there are Stages of Learning that people must undergo, to reach that stage of Exalted Performance Prowess.

In this article, we will explore What are the Stages of Learning. But first, a look at what Motor Learning even is, at the most primordial level.

Motor Learning: Key Fundamentals

In a nutshell, Motor Learning can be defined as the brain’s method of committing Automatic Reaction to Memory, through the Practice of an Action time and again, until it is deeply ensconced in the brain.

Indeed, it is this very Repetition of motor learning that allows people to ‘rewire’ their brains, so that they do not have to think on a conscious level. This only frees them up to react Automatically in a particular situation.

Motor Learning ranges from the most simple tasks like ‘walking up the stairs’, to the more complex things like ‘playing the violin’, that we touched upon briefly earlier.

That being said, there are 3 distinct Stages of Motor Learning. They comprise the ‘Stages of Learning’ Process, that enables the brains of people to process information even quicker than they are conscious of!

So, what are the stages of Learning? Read the following section, to find out all about them.

The 3 Stages of Learning

Acquiring skills is nothing short of ‘A Learned Process.’ It is the following stages of motor learning that enable just that.

#1. Stage One – The Cognitive Stage

In this, the first of the Stages of Learning Process, the key lies in garnering an Understanding of the task that needs to be performed.

Needless to say, this is the period that is characterised by a sense of Awkwardness, and the making of more Errors than one would like. This is, of course, the time when a learner will receive a set of instructions from their teacher, along with feedback every step of the way.

Tip: One of the best ways to master this stage is to break it down into simpler ‘bits’. That will help assist in that all-important act of ‘Practice’, that is really what this stage is all about.

A classic example of the Cognitive Stage of Learning, is The Butterfly Stroke in Swimming. We all know that this is a most complicated movement, that can certainly not be learned by anyone, if they do not have any Visual, or perhaps even Verbal, knowledge of it. One would need detailed information from a trainer such as a swimming coach, in order to process the most basic information that is required to learn it.

#2. Stage Two – The Associative Stage

In this stage, the learner comes to realise that all that practice they indulged in during the first stage, has not been for nothing.

At this time, the learner begins to demonstrate a more Refined performance. This is that crucial time when they can move on from the ‘How To Do’ that the first stage of learning encompasses, to the more detailed ‘What To Do.’ There are two things that are most important here:

  • Visual cues
  • Proprioceptive cues

We all know what Visual Cues imply, but what are Proprioceptive Cues? Loosely put, they deal with the learner garnering a sense of how their body moves in Space, and understanding the Input that is derived from their Joints and Muscles.

Note: The more the practice, the more proprioceptive cues the learner will receive, that will in turn help him master his practice.

A classic example of the Associative Stage of Learning, is Walking. In the beginning, young children will take small steps, with barely any kind of trunk rotation. As they continue to practice this skill they have discovered with a sense of unabashed glee, they will start getting better. You might observe them taking more controlled steps over time, and letting their arms rest at their sides. All indications of that ‘Refined’ movement that The Associative Stage of Learning entails.

Stage Three – The Autonomous Stage

This is the Fun stage, but as we have just seen, one behind which lies plenty of Hard Work, or ‘Practice’!

In this, the final of the Stages of Learning Process, the Learner finds their skill almost Automatic to produce, and requiring little to no Thought.

It’s only a given, then, that the reduced demands on Attention at this stage, allow the learner to focus a whole lot more on those Perceptual Cues we just discussed in the earlier point.

Note: In this stage, because of the decreased demand on attention, the learner will find that they are even able to accomplish other tasks, in addition to the movement that is being performed.

That being said, one does not want unwanted thoughts to enter the mind, especially if they are focusing on an outcome that they have been working hard towards. For example, many mountain climbers have even met with accidents near the mountain top. All because, they are too distracted by thoughts of scaling the mountain, instead of ‘focusing on the process’.

At EuroKids we believe that parents must place a good deal of emphasis on helping kids gain mastery over their Motor Skills. This is because motor skills are used every day of our lives, from the littlest to the grandest of things.