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.