Fitness Trail: Cognitive, associative and autonomous: The three stages of learning |

Fitness Trail: Cognitive, associative and autonomous: The three stages of learning

Basic hula-hoop rotation drill.

When we learn movement patterns such as in dance or related dance forms such as step aerobics and sports-oriented skills, we generally move through three specific stages. Obviously, how we learn as individuals (i.e. visually, auditory or kinesthetic) will impact our performance. However, this week three stages of learning—cognitive, associative and autonomous will be featured. It is important to note when learning each new skill, that 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 movement patterns, how well we are being taught/coached and how frequently we perform the new skill.

Understanding that you may experience three stages of learning when learning 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 teaching methods which may be applied to teaching and learning new movement patterns. These are the part or the whole teaching approach and which approach is utilized will be determined based upon the complexity of the movement and the practicality of breaking it down into smaller component parts.

For example, a complex choreographed step combination may be broken down into many specific skills 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 applying the whole approach.

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

Regardless of skill level, when a new skill is presented, there may be mistakes and errors experienced 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 occur leading them to the associative stage.

Just like it sounds, in the associative stage, the beginner participant begins to associate a movement/skill with the verbal/visual /directional cues given by the instructor/trainer/coach and this may enable them to react more quickly and efficiently. They may still struggle occasionally to “recall” all aspects of the combination, however, their learning process is solidifying and this generally means fewer errors and more success are experienced.

Eventually, the beginner’s goal is to make the journey into the autonomous stage where they automatically respond to the cues given by the instructor/trainer/coach with few, if any, errors, and leading to 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.

Jackie Wright is the owner/manager Mountain Life Fitness, LLC located in Granby. She may be reached at her website at, her email at

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