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The Characteristics of Great Learners

For me, the best moments in teaching come when a child suddenly realises that they are in charge of their learning. Grades aren’t handed down as a gift or punishment from teachers, they are a reflection of learning behaviour. This may sound like common sense, but it is amazingly uncommon.

Academic achievement is often seen by students and their parents as a mystery, or a code to crack. It isn’t. It is all pretty straight forward really. In order to optimise the natural ability that a child has, they first need to have an understanding of what makes an effective learner. Effective learners share the following characteristics. The beauty of these characteristics is that they can all be taught.

Appreciate the Value of Failure

Failure is one of the greatest tools in the learning process. Unfortunately, too many people are simply overwhelmed by the feeling of failure rather than being able to stand back and look at the lessons it can teach us. Having the tenacity to stare down failure is an extraordinary skill and it comes hand in hand with grit. Both can be taught.

By nature of our constant connectivity and sometimes overly dramatic media we have a culture of catastrophising. In this environment, keeping failure in perspective is akin to a superpower for an adolescent. Teach kids to look at failure in an analytical way. What is the size and gravity of the failure? What are its consequences? What can be learnt from the experience?

If you can build into your family’s culture an acceptance of errors, you can go a long way to empowering your children. It means that you too need to accept failure as a normal part of learning and model how to assess it and work through it. Start by not rewarding success and punishing failure. Reward endeavour, good process and the ability to adapt instead.

Recognise the Value of Teachers

A child’s relationship with their teacher is fundamental to their success at school.

Effective students recognise that their teachers are their allies. The importance of this relationship was borne out in the ground-breaking research of Professor John Hattie. He found that the relationship between a student and their teacher was incredibly important. It can be a direct indicator of success.

We tend to see this relationship as being completely in the hands of the teacher. That isn’t the case. Effective learners contribute to the creation of this strong relationship. They recognise their teachers as valuable resources whom they need to work in partnership with. These students are easy to recognise, they participate in class, they stay after class and ask extra questions, and they make appointments with their teachers to get help if they need it. Great teachers value this relationship and develop it, in fact they thrive on it. There is a warmth in the symbiosis.

Given that this relationship is so important, it stands to reason that we all need to nurture it. There needs to be a strong partnership between parents, teachers and students. Undermining teachers does not support your child’s learning, it hinders it. Regardless of how you feel about a teacher, your child’s relationship with that person needs to be fostered.

Understand Their Own Learning

When a child understands their own learning they are empowered to control it. What they need to understand includes:

  • What is expected of them. Teachers usually make this fact clear by giving explicit expectations, assignment outlines and marking rubrics.
  • That deep learning involves overcoming confusion and frustration.Kids needs an understanding that the learning process is more than just learning notes by rote and regurgitating them for a test.
  • How to study. There are countless revision techniques and study aids. Each child will find some more effective than others. It will be a process of trying different techniques to find what is comfortable for each student.
  • How to channel stress into success. The way each student handles stress is a sign of their resilience and self-awareness. This stress management can be taught. This link is to educational psychologist Andrew Fuller’s article on Preparing for Tests and Exams. He is very practical and sensible and he speaks to students directly. I highly recommend his whole website to parents and students.
  • Self-management behaviours. Santa Maria College Head of Professional Learning, Shani Andrews, conducts review meetings with Senior students to coach them on their progress. She says that what defines successful students in that context is that they are highly organised, they have study routines and schedules that they stick to. They take responsibility for their learning.

 Set Goals and Practise

Goal setting focuses a student’s attention towards certain behaviours and information and away from distractions. Research tells us that incremental goals are far more effective than large goals. If a student is able to break down a big goal, like achieving a higher grade, into small bite-sized pieces they are more likely to be successful. If they can incorporate the feedback they receive on each occasion, the small wins eventually lead to big achievements.

Practise is incredibly important. We would never go into a high level sporting event without practising first. Yet a lot of students will go into an exam never having practised exam technique before. Students do get better at sitting exams and tests with practise. They better assess the timing required, they become better at coping with the stress of the situation and they have a greater understanding of the subtle phrasing and demands of questions.

In conclusion…

There are other characteristics of great learners, but these are the fundamentals. The importance of adopting these behaviours is obvious at school because we have to confront tests and assessments and examinations. However, the real test of a great learner is whether this enthusiasm and drive for learning continues beyond the checks and balances of schools. Does a person love learning for the sheer joy of it? That’s what we call a life-long learner. And the steps beyond that are great thinkers and creators. May we produce many of them and may they inspire us.


Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here.



Andrew Fuller – Resources

Link to Ted Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth on the subject ‘Grit’.And if you watch that one, you’ll probably want to watch this one too… Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve

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