January 22nd, 2014

Seven Characteristics of Good Learners



I’ve seen lots of lists that identify the characteristics of good teachers. They’re great reminders of what we should aspire to be as teachers. I haven’t seen many corresponding lists that identify the characteristics of good learners. I decided to put one together and invite your input. This could be a list for our students or anybody who aspires to learn well.

  1. Good learners are curious – They wonder about all sorts of things, often about things way beyond their areas of expertise. They love the discovery part of learning. Finding out about something they didn’t know satisfies them for the moment, but their curiosity is addictive.
  2. Good learners pursue understanding diligently – A few things may come easily to learners but most knowledge arrives after effort, and good learners are willing to put in the time. They search out information—sometimes aspiring to find out everything that is known about something. They read, analyze, and evaluate the information they’ve found. They talk with others, read more, study more, and carry around what they don’t understand; thinking about it before they go to sleep, at the gym, on the way to work, and sometimes when they should be listening to others. Good learners are persistent. They don’t give up easily.
  3. Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun – That doesn’t change how much they love learning. When understanding finally comes, when they get it, when all the pieces fit together, that is one special thrill. But the journey to understanding generally isn’t all that exciting. Some learning tasks require boring repetition; others a mind-numbing attention to detail; still others periods of intense mental focus. Backs hurt, bottoms get tired, the clutter on the desk expands, the coffee tastes stale—no, most learning isn’t fun.
  4. Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial – It’s a part of learning that offers special opportunities that aren’t there when success comes quickly and without failure. In the presence of repeated failure and seeming futility, good learners carry on, confident that they’ll figure it out. When faced with a motor that resists repair, my live-in mechanic announces he has yet to meet a motor that can’t be fixed. Sometimes it ends up looking like a grudge match, man against the machine, with the man undeterred by how many different fixes don’t work. He’s frustrated but determined to find the one that will, all the while learning from those that don’t.
  5. Good learners make knowledge their own – This is about making the new knowledge fit with what the learner already knows, not making it mean whatever the learner wants. Good learners change their knowledge structures in order to accommodate what they are learning. They use the new knowledge to tear down what’s poorly constructed, to finish what’s only partially built, and to create new additions. In the process, they build a bigger and better knowledge structure. It’s not enough to just take in new knowledge. It has to make sense, to connect in meaningful ways with what the learner already knows.
  6. Good learners never run out of questions – There’s always more to know. Good learners are never satisfied with how much they know about anything. They are pulled around by questions—the ones they still can’t answer, or can only answer part way, or the ones without very good answers. Those questions follow them around like day follows night with the answer bringing daylight but the next question revealing the darkness.
  7. Good learners share what they’ve learned – Knowledge is inert. Unless it’s passed on, knowledge is lost. Good learners are teachers committed to sharing with others what they’ve learned. They write about it, and talk about it. Good learners can explain what they know in ways that make sense to others. They aren’t trapped by specialized language. They can translate, paraphrase, and find examples that make what they know meaningful to other learners. They are connected to the knowledge passed on to them and committed to leaving what they’ve learned with others.

Good teachers model this kind of learning for their students, which makes me believe that “good learner” belongs on those lists of good teacher characteristics.

Now it’s your turn. What would you add to the list of characteristics of good learners?

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99 comments on “Seven Characteristics of Good Learners

  1. Due to the fact that people learn in different ways and at different speeds, I am not in agreement that there is even a good learner at all. If we label learners as good, then that means that there is also the opposite, a bad learner. Learning is an individual activity that is unique to every individual. Learning is something that either occurs or doesn't occur. The article listing identifying the qualities of good learners is not entirely correct as not all good learners demonstrate these features.

    • I think the list highlights qualities that "active learners" or "critical thinkers" may or should possess. If the "good vs. bad" bothers you, then change good to active in the list above.

    • I' agree with all the things that good learners do, but I'm not agree at all. I think that the last paragraph (good learners share) I don't think that it should be like that. Learners are learning because they want, but they don't have the obligation to share the things that they learned. I think that they can share the things only if it is an obligation like the things you learned at school (where you do exams and you must share it).

    • I agree that learning is individual.

      Characteristics I might add to the list are Self-Efficacy and Collaboration. In his article, Student Self Directed Learning, Phil Brown noted that students who understand their own learning processes can overcome just about any course design. A self-starting student will seek out additional resources that supplement the information in a way that makes sense to them. For example, the visual learning may find a YouTube video that makes sense of the subject matter to them and the verbal learner may read an article or blog.

      Collaboration between the student and teacher is another way of improving learning. In his article, Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students, author David Glenn stated that if instructors match their teaching styles to the content rather than to the learners, students will apply their learning styles to obtaining that information.

      Brown, Phil. (2005). Student Self Directed Learning. Retrieved from http://ssdl.blogspot.com/2005/03/what-makes-good-

      Glenn, David. (2009). Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Matching-Teaching-St

    • Your comment about learning "speed" is irrelevant, and your interpretation of the word "good" is misinformed. Do not try to deconstruct the meaning; in this context the word "good" simply means "effective."

    • I believe that there is a difference between a person who is willing to learn and someone who is not. If someone is open and willing then they will be more likely to retain information and come out of the learning experience a better student.

    • I think that students should be able to constructively say why they didn't learn in any particular class. This vital information should be able to guide the instructors. But this usually ends up as a negative to the instructors. It shouldn't be personal. It's the ideas that should be examined. Why?

    • i agree with all the fact that the successful learner need to be curious, super dedicated on the area of learning, flexible to enhance their knowledge with new information, very interrogative, opinionated, willing to share thing. i don't think learning pace doesn't have anything to do with their ability to learn thing. even the slow learner can be a successful , active, or good learner if the are curious, ready to dedicated, afraid of failing to learn things they supposed to know. i think their person interest and curiosity trigger all the characteristic of good learner.

  2. I think these characteristics are excellent — especially if the instructor can give examples of how they model these to the students. I believe that most students would be energized by hearing their instructor share them or even posting this for them to read. When I was a student, not one professor 'turned me on' to learning for the sake of learning – I plan to share this with my students.

    • I have to say this is amazing and really gives an explanation on how students learn, I foe example really am a good learner that is curious. I like to learn anything that catches my eye and I love learning different subjects the only thing I hate is math. I am without a doubt a curious learner. I love learning anything, I love space and science I think the more you learn the more your brain understand the world and things around us and how they exist or created,

  3. I believe that "good/active" learners enjoy the challenge – goes along with the "push-pull" teaching strategy:)

  4. I'd add another thought, good learners seek alternate presentations of the information. When one presentation is not clear, they will try others to try to fill in the gaps. [This partially goes to the learning styles issues, but also different presentations often put different emphasis on the various parts of the understanding.

  5. Good learners are those who are not afraid to fail–who can resist the temptation to accept a superficial categorization of themselves in terms of a degree of "smartness".

  6. Semantics are important in academia, but the diversion often misses the point. When I read good I saw "effective." Nonetheless, thanks Maryellen for putting into words something I can and will share with my students. Maybe they will hear it more clearly from you as the "third party expert" reinforcement; or "parent" who works with another parent to switch children for an instructional moment because their own won't listen to them. The point here it seems to me is that there is an identifiable process to enhance the learning process.

  7. I agree with some of the comments here that language is hugely important when discussing anything related to education. Like the insurmountable task of defining what "good" writing is, learning is highly contextualized and dependent upon many factors–experience, desire, others involved, subject area, level of interest, etc. We often think we must all know what "good" learning (writing, reading, etc.) is when we see it, but really we all have different perspectives given our own histories as learners. I appreciate the opportunity to read this and to think about it. I will share this with my students and invite them to comment as well.

  8. I totally agree with you. This has been my experience since I began implementing brain based strategies in teaching long time ago and making them aware how important it is for them to know that so they can improve their own learning.
    They agree that a lot of learning is not fun however; they believe that learning should be fun and challenging. They also agree that they need a little stress to be creative and provoke critical thinking but just enough stress so they can manage it and be successful. That makes me think that I would add to the list that a good learner should be disciplined and systematic in what he or she does in order to learn.
    I think good learners should be responsible of their own learning. They should know themselves well, how they learn, what suits best for them to achieve an effective learning that last.

  9. Good learners realize that mastering material takes more time than they would naturally want to contribute.

  10. Good learners are taught and not made. I think good learners are a result of a good teacher. If the teacher can explain the subject or the lesson so that the learner understands or tries to understand, this makes a "good learner". Everyone has the potential to be a good learner, but not every teacher is a "good teacher".

  11. I'd like to substitute the words "good learner" with "inspired learner". or maybe even "motivated learner". the defference being that a motivated learner gets a hold of an idea and drives it to an expected end,with an inspired learner, an idea gets a hold of him and guides him to his destination,_

  12. Learners sit and watch the leaves on trees and know they cannot see all of them but know they wait
    to be seen.

    Good is too shallow a term.

  13. While Ken Bain's book, What the Best College Students Do doesn't include a list of characteristics of good learners, I think his research supports much of what you've posited here, Maryellen. Thanks for putting on your thinking cap and generating a conversation … :)

  14. I was surprised to see how many of these characteristics are stated as what one "is" (e.g. "curious) or knows (e.g. failure is beneficial) and so little is said about what "good" learners do. Explaining how one can become curious or sustain diligence and effort, to take the first two items, would be a very helpful next step.

  15. Thank you for taking the time to share insights about learning and the most productive behaviours and actions of effective learners. Rather than argue about semantics (a common sport in academia, but not so productive at the practical level), I offer a couple of points to add to the valuable insights you have provided. Please rephrase with appropriate language that suits your context as I recognise it is inevitable that we will write things differently, but essentially we mean similar things and this is where the value of sharing views is created.
    Learning benefits for being open to a range of perspectives to enable leveraging of diversity
    Participating in conversations to share understandings of others perspectives enriches the depth and scope of learning
    Richest learning is about looking forward to create new insights to apply in the future
    Whilst a "knowing" a base level of content is useful to accelerate learning, the real value comes through the experience of applying that knowledge in new contexts and situations
    The optimal way to engage learners is to focus on opening their minds rather than trying to fill them.

  16. Great article. Good learners also recognize the limits of their ability to fully understand and use new knowledge by connection but they are still able to make sufficient connections to pass it on to those people who good learners identify who can make the more meaningful connections and/or help them to make these more meaningful connections. This was the futuristic job of the main character in John Brunner’s book, “Stand on Zanzibar” and we are coming closer to the time when this type of knowledge entrepreneurship will be valued by our society.

  17. Great discussion! We all seek to guide inspired and engaged learning; listing learner attributes certainly provides a course to guide the learning journey. In readings lately, the concepts of "Healthy Habits" or "Steps from Good to Great" have emerged as methods to encourage growth for me. Perhaps these terms will help foster the discussion of gaining, applying and experiencing new knowledge for ourselves and with our students.

  18. Good learners have a goal in everything about learning and the care about learning as main thing in their life.
    I really agree with this great article it is really supported me in my first semester.

  19. Good learners never runs out of questions i agree with that article. when you ask questions its always more to learn.

    • A good learner is someone who will ask as many questions as they can until they get they concept. A good learner has good study habits and never puts things off until the last minute.

  20. I retitled the list 7 Characteristics of Effective Learns

    7 Characteristics of Good Learners

    I work in a university that for the past 148 years has embraced the mission of providing higher educational opportunities to those traditionally underserved. Originally the undergraduates were women; now it focuses on those in urban communities. Many are first generation college attendees; Holy Names University also holds the distinction of having the highest diversity score for 2012-2013 according to the U.S. News and World Report. Similar to other universities, many students come to university life underprepared: academically, emotionally or both. I read Faculty Focus regularly and find Dr. Weimer’s Teaching Professor Blog consistently helpful in providing thoughtful commentary and ideas to share with other professors.

    Like Dr. Weimer, I have seen many lists of the characteristics of effective leaders, teachers etc. But, I think the list of effective learners is unique. Currently, I am co-teaching a Strategies for Academic Success course for those who are on academic probation. The goal is to purposely teach time-management, goals setting, study skills, and note taking with the express purpose of creating more self-aware and efficient learners. Students are required to practice and apply the skills in the context of other classes also taken this semester.

    I developed a self-rating scale “Do you….?”_ to help students become more self-aware about their existing study habits. Each is rated in a column marked: Never Sometimes Always
    (Example: For assigned reading or chapters, do you …
    -complete the assigned readings
    -read assignment by the due date
    -review bold items (headings, subtitles) before you read
    -look at graphics(charts, pictures) before you read
    -look at sidebar notes before you read

    This scale pairs nicely with the 7 Characteristics offered by Maryellen Weimer recently.
    The characteristics are the overarching traits of “good” learners, whereas, the “Do you….?” self-rating sheet lists the desirable action steps of effective learners. I chose handout the titles of the 7 characteristics but leave off her descriptions. Instead, small groups of students discussed what might be meant by each. For example, “Good learners pursue understanding diligently.” After constructing their own meaning, these thoughts were brought to the whole group. Then, the class crafted a definition which included all the ideas and specific examples were shared. Lastly, each individual rated her/himself, on a scale of 1-5 on each characteristic. Thank you, Dr. Weimer for the well-constructed list that became a thoughtful exercise for students.

    • I am trying become a good learner and by reading the 7 characteristics it made me reflect on the things I am wrong on being a good student.

  21. I agree that learning something new isn't always the most fun activity. That is why you should always find time to learn about something new that catches your interest so that you can learn something fun right along with the boring.

  22. Good learners never stop learning. They are constantly trying to learn more intersting and challenging things.

  23. Good learners tend to ask plenty of questions when they need help, finish their work on time, do their work before time than last minute, gather up good information/details that they need for a project or topic that they are working on, and make knowledge their own so they can understand what they have learned in their way of studying.

  24. A good learner is scared of failure and even if they fail they keep on trying because they know the problem can be solved.

    Nathaniel Sarkar

  25. Good learners always have a thought process going on, and a person can never learn too much in life, there is always something to learn. Questions are a great pathway to find out about things you are unclear about and can make you have a greater understanding of a certain subject. –Amy Lou

  26. Good learner are always looking to learn something new and master the understanding of what they learned.

  27. A good learner is someone who try to fully understand the topic before continuing to the next part – Steven Lang

  28. After a person has learned something, they should practice using their newly obtained knowledge in their daily lives. Have conversations to see if other people know something you do not know about a topic and give each other insight. Put your knowledge to work everyday! — Jesse Ajamian

  29. good learners explore. when they are trying to find one answer, they are also seeking another. They don't settle for just one. Curiosity has the best of them and they yearn for more understanding

  30. i agree that good learners should share their knowledge with other people. Because when we speak what we know to others, they can help us to correct any misunderstand we have or give us more useful information. sharing knowledge is a good way to learn more! –Minh Ho

  31. good learners are always looking to master the understanding of what they learned.-yolanda williams

  32. A good learner is open to all credible information, even if it conflicts with their own preconceived ideas.

  33. Good learners are tenacious, they never stop or want to stop growing further in their intellectual development.

  34. Good Learners have goals when learning new material, they allow information to be learned in a way that can apply to counter stories and personal situations. Applying new learned knowledge to the counter stories can progressively change what before felt as unattainable. Knowledge is power, and power is accomplishing something.

  35. A good learner will put the time and effort, someone who is determined and will not give up.

  36. Good learners recognize their weaknesses so that they can determine what actions they need to take to make themselves work more efficiently.

  37. Good learners can learn to ignore all the distractions around them and focus on getting their work done in a timely manner.

  38. Good learners are always pushing because they want more and want to succeed. Veronica Magallanes

  39. Good learners will work hard to achieve their goals. Also, managing each type of work in a orderly fashion. Good learners can work in a group works and lead some discussions or work independently.

  40. Good learners know no pain no gain. Good learners know that if they want to succeed, they have to put more efforts in what they want to do.

  41. Good Learners will keep on growing despite hardship. Being able to push through and stay until the end and use the knowledge that they learned is a good learner.

  42. Good learners never stop thinking about their responsibilities from school work until the goal is reached. By reading the seven characteristics from a good learner I have learned that I am far behind from being a good student, but from this reading I have the concept that is never late to do an effort to change bad habits into positive so that I could became a good student.

  43. A good learner knows that in order to succeed, they must first accept failure as part of the learning process. -Pasha Moreno

  44. Good learners will be a successful student if they are encourage on learning new things. Most important is being consistent on the goals that needed to achieve.

  45. Great article! Good learners share what they've learned. I really like this sentence because when I learn new things, I do see myself sharing it with my friends. I do a lot of the things on this list, good to know. Brooke H.

  46. I would like to add that good learners are also good communicating and discussing class assignments with groups and other students. I agree that asking many questions are key to understanding the class.

  47. Becoming a successful student is accomplished by observing and absorbing all the information that one is given and putting it to practice. They are also not afraid to make mistakes and ask questions when needed.

  48. A good learner is always willing to entertain new ideas before deciding whether or not they are right. Until entertaining a thought, a learner may remain stuck in their way of thinking. Entertaining new ideas opens the door to learning if the idea works

  49. A good learner knows that there is never a destination in expanding the mind. There is always more to learn.

  50. I think all of the characteristics of a good learner listed in this article are accurate. I think that a good learner is someone who devotes their time and energy into getting their work done and doing it the right way. Some of these characteristics are ones that I am going to strive to acquire now that I've read this article.

  51. Good learners set high goals to challenge themselves to be the best they know they can be.

  52. Time management is one of the most important things to do to be a success in learning and in becoming a success in life. What I think is important and witch helps me is going into the course, class or anything I try to accomplish in life with what we call a good "Mindset". Meaning try to motivate yourself and think positive that this is going to be great and I want this for myself and my future.

    Rick Lucas

  53. I agree with the article that good listeners share what they learn i tend to do that when I learn something new.

  54. A good learners never stop reading and adding information on daily basis and willing to share it if needed.

  55. Good learners never seem to run out of questions rather they question everything and seek answers constantly.

  56. I agree good learning share their thought and help other learn too. Most student make the best teachers because they explain things the way they understood it.

  57. A good learner takes in information and uses it in ways be benefit themselves in more than one way

  58. I would add that a good learner should be able to explain their findings in their own words and also be able to explain it to anyone else that does not yet understand what the topic is being discuss about

  59. This article motivate me to be a great learner. I especially agreed on #2. I believe that good learners never give up to understand.

  60. Good learners are curious. I've always believed that those who try new things and are always willing to learn are more open minded than those who don't.

  61. Good learners ask a lot of questions. Also good learners share ideas with others to make their ideas a little better then what they where the first time.

  62. I appreciate and share concise articles such as this. Certainly one may accurately argue that there are other characteristics neglected in the article,but having a readable one page essay,that my teacher candidates will read and discuss is always welcome.

  63. I think that people learn differently. A good learner must know what works for them. Some people can read things and get a full understanding. Others have to read something over and over again before it makes sense. Others learn by touching and doing. I think the best learners are the ones with desire. A desire to want to know more and never give up.

  64. i agree with all the fact that the successful learner need to be curious, super dedicated on the area of learning, flexible to enhance their knowledge with new information, very interrogative and skeptical, opinionated, willing to share thing. i don't think individual's learning paces don't have anything to do with their ability to learn thing effectively. Even the slow learner can be a successful , active, effective or good learner if the are curious, ready to dedicated, afraid of failing to learn things they supposed to know. I think their personal interest and curiosity trigger all characteristic of good learner. it is very true that one cannot be a good learner in every subject they take in college because their ability to learn successfully is directly associated with their interest. the great learner usually willing to share what they have already learned, because it, in a way, helps their knowledge solidify.

  65. Adding to #4, I believe that anyone who masters a subject or area of study not only knows that failure can be beneficial in the long run, but also know that constant praise and success can possibly be a detriment to more learning. Failure drives one to overcome the obstacles and to ultimately become an expert or artist.

  66. I think a good learner also researches the topic he/she doesn't understand from just reading the text.
    Even a simple google search could help the student better understand the topic. A good learner goes out of there way and uses outside resources to learn the material. – Lindsey Iniguez

  67. I agree there should not be a label to define "good" or "bad" learners. The common attribute is they are both engaged in the learning process. I believe to be an active learner you must fully engaged and must think with an open mind to be able to attain as much information as possible. – Cynthia Martinez

  68. Good learners really for me is someone who is willing, patient, understanding and open minded. making time and showing interest is one of the way you will know that the person is willing and ready to learn.

  69. Good learners are risk takers, they aren't afraid to immerse themselves fully in a topic they start off knowing nothing about. Good learners go in with the knowledge that they will fail a few times before getting it right.

  70. A good learner is open minded to the opinions and teachings of others, even if the learner isn't in agreement of the lesson or idea passed on. Perspectives (can) greatly differ, and this should be considered when seeking to understand a topic/teaching. Different opinions/conclusions from others can broaden one's perspective, and a good learner should seek the ability to be unbiased when creating arguments from "both sides". -Gina Camacho

  71. I believe that for good learners, failure isn't foremost in the equation. It's not a win/lose situation because, no matter what, you take things away from the experience. It's not about being afraid of failure and that being your driving force – it's about being the driving force for yourself. I think that is important.

  72. Good learners embrace the concepts they have learned and use them to develop a new outlook on the subject matter in order to incorporate them into every day life. -Zachary Picker

  73. A good learner works hard, reads the assignments, and follows deadlines- Kim Hernandez

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