Characteristics of Effective Learning: 5 Tell-Tale Signs

characteristics of effective learningIf you’ve ever fallen asleep in a classroom setting, you know it what it’s like to fall victim to ineffective learning and teaching techniques. Much, but not all, of this responsibility belongs to the teacher; while it is possible to learn effectively on one’s own, a positive team atmosphere is almost always most conducive to truly powerful learning.

And we aren’t just talking about memorization or tediously moving through a workbook one chapter at a time. Effective learning stimulates the cognitive sections of the brain, it challenges ethics and tests responsibility, and in the best of cases, makes the learner and the teacher stronger people. Needless to say, this is no easy task. But it is far from impossible. I detail the characteristics of effective learning below from both the student’s and teacher’s perspectives. Individuals can better prepare themselves for classes by taking this course on learning how to learn.


Students have to uphold their own end of the bargain when it comes to creating a positive atmosphere. This begins with preparedness, active participation and collaboration. The last of these, collaboration, is a good way to encourage preparedness and participation; students often take peer responsibility very seriously, and are held to their obligations.

Teachers need to do everything in their power to create a positive atmosphere. This will help stimulate one of the most important intangibles of effective learning: curiosity. A curious student will enjoy learning, and almost nothing does more to encourage a lifetime commitment to learning (this workshop can help you understand what creates a readiness to learn). For this to happen, students need to overcome certain barriers they may have inherited against their wills: racial discrimination, religious intolerance, feeling superior or inferior to other students’ abilities, etc. A healthy atmosphere is one in which each student considers every other student a peer.

Criticism And Process

Students must realize that criticism is not personal; it is for their benefit. When students are using feedback to make noticeable improvements, this is literally the definition of effective learning. When students take this a step further and learn to reflect on their own work, thereby criticizing and correcting themselves, this is a sign that an important learning process has been adapted into the way they approach problems.

Teachers can help instill these ideas by focusing on the process instead of the end result. Far less important than getting the correct answer is arriving there using the correct methods. It doesn’t matter if students have memorized the correct answer; that only helps them on one problem. Learning the process will help them solve any problem. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Critical Thinking 

Students: This is a crucial step in effective learning. When students begin to make their own inquiries, to think outside the box, to predict the next question in a sequence, that is a demonstration of complex learning and thinking. This is very much like being process-oriented, except critical thinking causes students to formulate their own starting points and their own processes to help them move forward. This is the kind of thinking it takes to solve real-world problems, for which known processes and solutions do not yet exist. Students who find critical thinking unnatural should check out this course specifically designed to increase your ability to think critically and solve problems.

Teachers have to push their students. This means letting them make mistakes and showing them how mistakes can be used to an advantage. Critical thinking will be nipped in the bud if students are not aware that this is a natural process. It will help if they can work through this as a group; over time, things like group discussions will show that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Teachers who can do this through a variety of situations will find they are the most successful. Those who are struggling might find the help they need in this article on teaching anyone anything (anywhere, anytime).

Applied Learning

Students must apply their learning to things that are meaningful to themselves. This is when students begin to make important decisions, such as what they want to do with their lives. Applied learning is evident when students start gathering and analyzing information on their own. From here, students should be able to generate meaningful questions, useful models and realistic interpretations. Being able to do all of the above through effective collaboration is a sign of real maturity. A sharp mind is essential for applied learning; this post on metacognitive strategies will teach you how to exercise your brain.

Teachers can encourage applied learning by helping students design their own side projects. This will help students make the transition from learning in the classroom to learning in the field. The key here is to retain curiosity; side projects should directly address students’ interests and passions. The best teachers collaborate with other teachers to achieve the holy grail of effective learning: multi-disciplinary applications (note: this is best done at the high school level or below, where many students are in the same classes). Allowing students to apply their knowledge in other subjects is a true test of effective learning.

Retaining Knowledge (And Switching Places)

Students: The final stage is retaining knowledge. Ideally, students will retain the knowledge they learn for the duration of their lives. Positive indications of this include furthering their studies independently or collaboratively, mastering the application of ideas in multiple areas, and taking their knowledge into the real world; in essence, the combination of the previous four characteristics. A student has retained knowledge when gaps in learning can be immediately filled by using what hr or she knows to remember or re-teach what has been forgotten. An even better indication is when the student can teach what he or she has learned to others.

Teachers will find this aspect most difficult with struggling students. Enabling them to retain knowledge will require using many different techniques and resources. It will require true mastery of what they are teaching and setting standards that are indicative of knowledge retainment. The more diverse an arsenal the teacher possesses, the most quickly and effectively he or she will be able to steer struggling students around obstacles. When every student in the class has retained knowledge, only then has the teacher truly, and finally, succeeded.

Teachers, or students, who wish to further their understanding of effective learning can do so with a scientific approach provided by this video-textbook course on the psychology of learning, which examines how we make connections betweehat exactly happens when we learn.