4 Key Characteristics of Effective Learners

Becoming a good learner is essential in the world we live in today. Things change fast, and you need to upgrade yourself constantly to stay relevant.

Being in the field of IT, I can really feel the pace of things. It seems like no week goes by without a new technology coming out. If I were satisfied with sticking only with what I learned years ago, my skills would soon be obsolete.

I believe such a situation happens, not just in IT, but also in other fields. That’s why it’s important that you constantly update your knowledge and refresh your skill set.

But how can we be effective at learning?

Based on my observations, there are some characteristics that effective learners have. You should aim to develop them in yourself. Here are four characteristics of effective learners:

1. They are curious

As I wrote in How to Educate Yourself Online, your curiosity is like the fuel that will determine how far you’ll go. The more curious you are, the further you will go.

Curiosity makes a big difference in the process of learning. If you are curious, you will enjoy learning. Learning will become an adventure. As a result, you will do more of it. Over time, the gap between those who have curiosity and those who don’t will become huge.

2. They are process-oriented

A while back, I read The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. It’s a relatively short book, but it gives me a useful perspective on becoming an effective learner.

One thing the author emphasizes is the importance of focusing on the process instead of the product. To be a good learner, being process-oriented is essential. You should focus on the process of getting better instead of the end result.

For instance, in learning music, rather than worrying about whether you can play a piece, you should focus on improving the techniques that will get you there. Figure out where you lack and practice it. If you do this, the outcomes will take care of themselves.

There are some benefits of having this mindset:

  • You minimize disappointment and frustration.
    If you focus on the product, you will be disappointed when you don’t get what you want. But if you focus on the process, you won’t have such a negative feeling. Your goal is simply to improve yourself as much as you can.
  • It focuses your energy on what’s important.
    Mastering a skill requires a lot of energy. Having a process-oriented mindset allows you to focus your energy on what’s important (that is, improving your techniques). You don’t waste your energy worrying about something that’s beyond your control.
  • You have the patience to go through the process.
    If you focus on the product, you might not have the patience necessary to go through the process. You just want to get the final result. As a result, you might take shortcuts (with bad consequences) or simply give up.
    On the other hand, if you focus on the process, you will have the patience necessary. That will enable you to go through the process and eventually get the desired outcomes. Plus, you will enjoy the journey.

3. They apply what they’ve learned

To fully learn something, you need to apply what you have learned. That’s why I’m an advocate of having side projects.

Working on a project takes time and energy, so you don’t need to create a project for everything. Do it only for a few things that you want to learn deeper. My article entitled Learn New Skills With Project-Based Learning explains more about it.

4. They retain what they’ve learned

It’s easy to forget what we have learned. That’s why you need to think not only about how to acquire knowledge but also how to retain it. When you are losing your grip on certain knowledge, you should be able to “reinstall” it with relative ease.

Taking notes is a common approach that people take. But make sure that your notes are effective: they should be able to trigger your memory in the least amount of time.

In reading books, a good method to retain knowledge is to highlight the key points of a book. It makes it easy for you to “reinstall” the knowledge later on.


Having these four characteristics will help you become an effective learner. You will be able not only to adapt, but also to thrive in a changing world.

What do you think? Do you have any suggestions on becoming a good learner? Feel free to share them in the comments.

For interesting links and updates, please follow me on Twitter.

Photo by Bigstock


  1. Process-orientation is so important. “Results-oriented” often means cutting corners and gaming results. Process is a much better tool over time. As long as you have good process, you will have good results in the long term, even if you don’t win them all. Great post!

    • Well said, Tony. Being result-oriented might give you what you want in the short term, but I doubt the success is sustainable. To have a sustainable success, focusing on the process is key.

      • Professor Emmanuel Kofi Gyimah
        Professor Emmanuel Kofi Gyimah

        Good Day sir. Please, are you the Author of the 4 Key Characteristics of Effective Learners?


  2. Totally agree 🙂
    Processes is the most important thing to be dealt with, to achieve the wanted results…

    Those who can master the processes, most likely are easier to adapt with changes, innovations, and even can make better (and better!) problem solving, considering processes-oriented means: understanding the very fundamentals of the “real works” (every components of flows/sequences, decisional acts based on relative conditions which can be applied, the optimalized repetitive works which need to be made)

    But yet, based on my experiences, sometimes “results-oriented” may be works well in achieving short-term goals, while the “processes-oriented” is the best in achieving long-term goals.

    Nice post Mr. Donald! I can’t wait for the next post 😀

  3. Turning knowledge into competence is hugely important in my experience, that is putting what you’ve learned into practice. “What you don’t use, you lose” is so true in all aspects of life, especially in learning.

  4. Nicely observed and written post. I am trying to be a good learner. But I couldn’t find my mistakes. But I now found out what is that after reading your post. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Nice article. I never thought of ‘process orientation’ as a focus for learning. But it reminds me of not being fixated on a particular outcome. In fixating, you might miss better opportunities along the way.

    • In being process-oriented, the desired outcomes act as a rudder that will guide your effort. But I agree that fixating on a particular outcome may cause you to miss something better.

  6. It’s amazing how important it is to stay hungry and curious about learning. If you don’t keep this fire in you when you are learning something you will never retain it. I just wrote an article on my blog about how to be a good communicator and most of the lesson is to be a good listener first. This fact also applies to being a good learner! Very well written, concise article. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I would add another characteristic – they don’t get tied down in the details. Now this might sound counter to learning. What I mean is that an effective learner has an idea of what they want to learn. When researching, reading, etc they don’t go down rabbit holes. They keep their purpose in mind and focus on the topic.

  8. Great! I learn pretty slow actually, so going to incorporate these tips! Thanks.


  9. 1. I’m not a curious person but when I find something I am curious about I usually go into overdrive and almost try to learn to much. I’ve learned to find out what is important about a subject and stick to learning that first than everything else seems to just be common sense stuff.
    2. I was in band and played and instrument I completely agree with this……if you must know, I played Tuba, no I’m not short and fat, and I don’t have freckles.
    3. I usually try to find ways to apply what I’ve learned to things I already do every day
    4. I’ll have to work on this myself

    I enjoyed reading this, it seems like things that should automatic for me but reading this made me make a conscious effort to follow these rules.

    Thanks !

  10. This is a great list. I know that it would be difficult to encompass every single characteristic of an effective learner, but I think another important one is intent. People who have an intention on learning will be able to better practice, apply, and retain information. Thanks for the article!

  11. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of “The Practicing Mind” when I read it, I really liked emphasis on process. I was reading that right after I read a book on habits and it seemed that the two went hand in hand. Fantastic post!!

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I enjoy reading them since they enrich our discussion.

  13. New reader here but I must say I am 100% impressed with not just your writing style here but all of the available information and helpful links you have provided.

    I also thoroughly agree with how you explained that being in the world of IT means you are in a constant process of learning. I think this applies to far more than the IT field and I think in some industries, such as the medical or science fields, becoming stagnant in the learning process is at worst, socially irresponsible.

    Again, thanks for a great post. You’ve definitely found a new reader here and now I’m off to inspect your blog further!

  14. I need to work on #2, I’m not good with patience. And I have to agree that #1 is so important. If you lose interest in something it just becomes so boring to learn and do.

  15. It really is a shame that most of us cannot keep that child like curiousity into adulthood about so many things. We tend to focus down to a few key subjects as we get older.

  16. Jasmine Pei Pei Cheong
    Jasmine Pei Pei Cheong

    Incidentally, I just came out with my own thoughts on learning and self improvement:
    1-Observe (could be thru classroom learning or observing an event, a person)
    2-Learn (truly understand it)
    3-Internalise (very important step: visualize in mind, practise in head, build scenarios on how to apply and when to apply)
    6-Start the whole process again

Comments are closed.