Cognitive, Associative and Autonomous – The Three Stages of Learning

When we learn, and in this case we are referring to learning movements such as in dance or related dance forms such as step aerobics and sports-oriented skills, we generally move through three different stages.  Obviously, how we learn as individuals (i.e. visually, auditory or kinesthetic) will impact our performance.  However, this is a discussion regarding the three stages of learning—cognitive, associative and autonomous.  It is important to note when learning each new skill, we may transition through one, two or all three stages.  It will depend upon our genetic predisposition, our commitment to learning the new skill, our physical limitations/capability, and our previous experiences with similar movements, how well we are being taught/coached and how often we are exposed to the new skill.

Understanding that you may experience three stages of learning each time you learn a new skill, may help you to be more patient with yourself during these transitions and in the end, to know when you have reached the skill level that is unique to you as an individual.  There are also two different methods applied during teaching a new skill—the part or the whole approach and which is utilized will be determined based upon the complexity of the movement and the practicality of breaking it down into smaller parts.

For example, a complex choreographed step combination may be broken down into many parts prior to building the combination into the final form.  Whereas a single step skill, such as a travel knee, simple by comparison to a combination where many step skills are combined, will tend to be taught by the whole approach.  

*For purposes of describing the three stages of learning, we will use a complex choreographed step combination as the model and a beginner step participant.  And, as always, prior to beginning any exercise program, please consult your physician.


Regardless of skill level, when a new skill set is presented, there may be mistakes and errors by the participant.  A beginner may make many mistakes and errors initially by comparison to the experienced/skilled step participant. The beginner may also remain in the cognitive stage longer than those with more experience as it may take this individual longer to process this new information.  However, as the combination is repeated several times, fewer errors may be made and hopefully leads them to the associative stage.  


Just like it sounds, the beginner participant begins to associate a movement/skill with the verbal/visual cues being given by the instructor and this may enable them to react more quickly and efficiently.  They may still struggle occasionally to “recall” all aspects of the combination, but their learning process is taking hold and this generally means fewer errors and more success.  


Eventually, the goal of this beginner is to make the journey into the autonomous stage where they automatically respond to the cues given by the instructor with few, if any, errors. Being able to perform automatically spells learning success!

Now, the key for this beginner is to continue practicing their basic step skills so that the step skills are automatically understood enabling them to “connect the dots” of the complex choreographed combinations and become a skilled/experienced step participant.

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