The four stages of learning factual content


For fun (yes, this is my kind of fun), I propose a four-stage classification for learning factual content. I have not heavily consulted the literature on the subject so may be in essence repeating someone else’s work. (I wrote this in 30 minutes while eating breakfast, so forgive me if parts are unclear)


When learning new factual content, there are four stages to progress through.

These are similar to, but not the same as, the four competency stages (unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence).

I will use examples from learning Medicine throughout.


The first stage is ignorance. This is when you haven’t even heard of the content. For example, you have never even heard about ‘sjogrens’ before.


The second stage is sporadism. This is where you have come across something, perhaps in different contexts, so have a general gist but don’t really know what it is. It is based on associations, but not understanding or context.

A medical example could be that you once met someone with a stiff neck and found out they heard rheumatoid arthritis. They also told you that they used to have gold injections. You are therefore no longer ignorant about what rheumatoid arthritis is – you know one of the symptoms and one of the treatments. However, this is a very incomplete picture; you don’t know how common this symptom or treatment is nor what the underlying pathophysiology.


The third stage is branch knowledge. This involves appreciation of the context, which provides a structure and ‘branches’ that you can ‘hang’ the knowledge on. It may be that you now understand the mechanism of a disease or that you appreciate how the condition is classified.

Using rheumatoid arthritis as an example, you may now understand that it is an autoimmune condition which, in its end-stages, can cause severe joint damage and limit neck movement. You may also appreciate that this is not the most common presentation and that it typically presents as pain in joints of the hand. You may appreciate the classification of rheumatology conditions into focal vs generalised and inflammatory vs non-inflammatory and appreciate that rheumatoid arthritis is a focal, inflammatory condition.

However, at this stage, the details are still not appreciated.


The final stage is leaf knowledge (to continue the tree metaphor). This is where you have the underlying structure for the information AND it is fleshed out with facts.

To continue the rheumatoid arthritis example, you now appreciate all of the different symptoms that can present and why they come about and you know the 7 criteria, of which 4 must be met for diagnosis.


The stage of your present knowledge determines what the next most appropriate action is. If you are ignorant, then seek to be exposed. Put yourself in positions that will expose you to a wide array of new information (it’s impossible to decide what to be exposed to in advance). If you have sporadic knowledge, seek to find an overall structure. If you have branch knowledge, look for leaves.


Note: There is quantitative variation within each stage but qualitative differences between stages. For example, in stage two (sporadism) you may have been exposed to a condition in one narrow context or in multiple different contexts. So the number, and therefore reliability, of the associations can vary greatly.



Also published on Medium.