The Four Stages of Learning Chess Tactics

   Today I want to talk about an idea related to learning called the the “conscious competence” learning model, and how it can be applied to your study of chess tactics.
   From Wikipedia ( The conscious competence model relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

The Four Stages

  •     Unconscious Incompetence

        The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

  •     Conscious Incompetence

        Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

  •     Conscious Competence

        The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

  •     Unconscious Competence

        The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

When learning about chess tactics, or any new skill, you will go through 4 levels of learning

   I think that this is a very useful model to use whenever learning a new skill, and in this case the skill is “chess” and “chess tactics“.
   Most of the time when learning a chess tactic or idea you will go through these stages.
   For example, take a player who doesn’t know what a “smothered mate” chess tactic is.
   They are in the first stage – They don’t know what is smothered mate is, and they don’t know that they don’t know what a smothered mate is.
   In the next stage they might learn about a smothered mate chess tactic, but they cannot always do it themselves in a game, and will often do it incorrectly, or miss the opportunity to do one in a game or puzzle situation.  So they are aware that a smothered mate idea exists, but cannot perform it themselves with competence.
   In the next stage the player would become consciously competent at a smothered mate chess tactic.  They can perform it, but are still calculating about it at a conscious level of thinking.  They have to concentrate, and calculate all of the moves, but can normally execute it correctly.
   In the final stage the player has unconscious competence at the tactic.  They just “see it”.  They don’t even have to think about it.  They can glance at the board for 1/2 a second, and instantly see the 4-5 move smothered mate pattern.  This is how a Grandmaster can play a simul – because they have unconscious competence at thousands of chess patterns and chess tactics.
   So when working through chess puzzles (or any new skill), the goal is really to get to the unconscious competence level.
   You also have to be careful because many strong players will be operating at an unconscious competence level, so they are not always the best teachers.  They just “see” the answers, and often don’t know how to consciously solve the answer, because the answer is just “there” at an unconscious level.
   I think that this is part of the reason that many strong players fail to stress the importance of chess tactics study when making recommendations on how to get better, because they are already at this 4th level of learning, and can no longer relate, or remember what it was like to be at the earlier stages.

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