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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
April 29, 2022

The 6 Abilities of an Effective Learner

With effective learning, ‘taking in’ information is not the end of the learning process. Recognize what elevates an effective learner from other learners, and you will understand how their learning performance is so elevated as well.
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Who is an Effective Learner?

An effective learner is someone who has developed the ability to absorb new learning content and use what they have learned in real-world situations. 


Effective learners do not seek speed - being effective is not the same as being fast. Whatever the speed (which may vary) of learning, an effective learner is focused on the quality and usability of the knowledge they are building. 

With effective learning, ‘taking in’ information is not the end of the learning process

It is not learning for the sake of collecting information or for short-term goals such as exams.

Learning as is commonly seen in schools - or studying - focuses on the input (the teacher gives information- the child takes in information) and output (child recalls the input during exams). 

The child is left to figure out the process themselves. 

But without the needed work during the learning process, the information does not turn into real, usable knowledge. 

Effective learners master the process of learning so that they can better achieve the performance output they want - to be able to use what they have learned not just to pass exams, but through life.

The 6 abilities of Effective Learners

Visual of the 6 abilities of effective learners: absorb, understand, apply, connect, recall, improve
The 6 Abilities of An Effective Learner

1. Absorb

Take in diverse learning content effectively

Effective Learners are not empty vessels that passively receive information they are fed. Effective learners are active learners. Because of a solid learning strategy that lets them be masters of their own learning process, they are highly engaged in the learning experience.

They know why they are doing it, how it fits in their life, and are committed to absorbing information in a way that they can do something constructive with it.

2. Understand

Make meaning of content and put it into context

Understanding what we have learned is a critical component of effective learning. We are not only able to put the information into context (where does it fit in my world and the larger world) but also make meaning of it for ourselves. 

For example, if you give a child a set of tools, a take-apart toy, and no instructions, they will soon (through their own process) figure out that of all the tools they have, they need the screwdriver to unscrew the bolts. 

They have ‘learned’ how to use the screwdriver since they have figured out for themselves what it can do, and when and why they can use it in relation to all the other tools that were handed to them. Context and meaning.

3. Recall

Be able to remember relevant information at will

When students learn to pass exams, recall-at-will is not going to happen. Recall, however, is a bedrock of effective learning. If you cannot remember what has been learned when you actually need it, then it is useless. Effective learners have several practice and recall techniques  stored in their Learning to Learn toolbox. They use them to encode learning into their long-term memory and remember stuff when they need to, irrespective of the context or situation. Others - students who just memorize - will forget the information as soon as the exam is over. 

4. Connect

Join the dots to create new knowledge, solutions and ideas

A man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Unfortunately, the problems we try to solve as humans need broader thinking than that.

Albert Einstein says “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

Einstein and other polymaths like him are able to solve problems far more effectively than others not because they were born with genius brains, but because they constantly work on their learning abilities. Making new connections actually grows brain power, so the more they learn, the smarter they get.

A regular student will put isolated bits of information into their head - science and math and English and art never intersect in their world. 

However, an effective learner, because of their ability to encode and connect information better, will see patterns and relations where others don’t. Their inter-disciplinary approach to learning lets them connect seemingly unrelated information to form new theories and solutions, and so they are able to change the game or narrative, where others only take in what they are fed.

5. Apply

Be able to use knowledge, in any context, to solve diverse problems

In the knowledge era, information alone is of no value. Those who know how to use it, in real-life situations, to solve real life problems, to make smarter decisions are the ones who can make a real difference to the world. Effective learners build application into their learning strategy, because they are learning not to pass an exam, but to build knowledge that can be used to do things. 

6. Improve

Continuously refine the learning process by using feedback and reflection

Practice makes perfect, but practicing the same thing over and over again is stagnation. To grow, effective learners are always working on becoming better learners. They use effective learning techniques like reflection and feedback to great effect to achieve continuous improvement in their learning process. The better they can learn, the more they can learn and do.

Parents are the key Children Becoming Effective Learners 

I’d like to end with a few insights from a paper by Professor Debora Herold PHD, a professor of cognitive psychology at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. She offers useful insights on how students remember information they are taught. 

She says, “most failures of memory are not problems with retrieval but with encoding”.
That means, the student has not even absorbed the information properly, so recall is out of the question. 

She suggests practical tactics for learners to improve in key areas of the learning process: encode the information better (putting it into their memory) with stronger meaning-making; improve recall by creating context, and regular testing. 

Her approach suggests that each of these 6 abilities is deeply interconnected- one ability cannot develop without the other. This is why it’s so critical to look at learning as a PROCESS and not an activity or stand alone event. 

Effective learners are first and foremost masters of their learning process. 

Parents of early learners, tweens and teens, have a huge opportunity (and responsibility) to help their children develop the 6 effective learning abilities. This will  help them not just through their next several years as a student, but throughout life, in both, their personal and professional domains.

It is all rooted in the learning process - focus on ‘HOW TO LEARN’ - the ‘WHAT TO LEARN’ will sort itself out. 

Also read:

The Ultimate Guide to Effective Learning

The Power of Reflection for Effective Learning

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