Factors for Successful Learning

As an educator, one of the things I have spent years trying to understand is the factors which determine whether or not a student succeeds in his or her study. The model I describe below is one that has evolved over the past decade. Currently I think there are five primary factors.

Natural ability – This can be a somewhat overemphasised factor, however, in life there are some topics and activities which we find easier than others. And when we find things easy it can have a reinforcing effect – we like it because it is easy, therefore we spend more time doing it, therefore we get even better at it. However, by itself natural ability does not result in success. Every great sportsperson, academic, tradesperson or artisan excels at what they do because they also continually practice and refine what they do. This is where the next factor comes in.

Motivation – to spend the time required to succeed you need to be motivated. Some people are motivated by the sheer intrinsic joy of what they are learning. For others it is more challenging. Where a topic or field of study does not bring intrinsic happiness there are other ways to keep motivated. One of the best in my experience is to focus on long term goals – e.g. if I successfully learn this material and pass this test, then this course and then this qualification I will be in a career I love/earning a good wage/making my loved ones proud of me etc. Visualisation can be useful here, vividly imagining what things will be like for you 5 or 10 years from now in the perfect career. Rewarding yourself for key successes along the way is also a good approach.

Resources – Even the brightest student cannot succeed without resources.  Resources may include textbooks, online resources, extra readings, practical experiments and on the job experiences. Teachers/tutors/lecturers also fall into this category, as successful students are often the ones that seek help from their teachers when they get stuck.

Study Skills – As well as having access to resources, knowing HOW to use them effectively is important. For example, for most people rote learning is less effective that doing activities which apply what is being learnt.

An understanding of your own learning style is important and so is trying different ways of learning to see which suits. For example, the most effective way for me to learn many things is to understand and visualise the “big picture” by drawing all the key concepts into diagrams. When I can see how everything connects I remember things better. However, this may not be the best way for others. Understanding how you learn best is an important skill which can be developed by exploring different methods (some of which I hope to blog about at a later date).

Support – One of the things which assists with an individual’s success is the support of those around them. A supportive partner, whanau (family) can make all the difference through emotional and physical (e.g. doing household chores for them) support. Supportive learning environments where both teachers and peers provide a positive learning environment also support success.

All five of the above factors contribute to success. Not all five are necessarily required for success but the fewer that are available, the less likely success is. In many ways they are interconnected, e.g. well designed learning resources can guide a student on how to learn, while whanau (family) support will bolster motivation.

If I had to pick one as most important it would probably be motivation. In every field there are those who were initially judged not to have the “right stuff” (natural ability) yet through perseverance and practice were able to excel in their chosen fields. Knowing how to motivate oneself, even in the face of adversity, is one of the best skills we can have.

5 learning factors

Diagram 1: Five Factors for Success in Learning


Having a Growth Mindset

In her book “Mindset”, Stanford University professor of psychology, Dr Carol Dweck, describes how her over 20 years of research has determined that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” and, if I may add, what you get out of life.

She describes two different mindsets:

If you have a FIXED mindset you are most likely to believe that your qualities (and those of others) are unchangeable. That you are born with a certain IQ, a certain personality and certain other characteristics and these cannot change. Then you fail at a task it is a bad reflection on you, so you are less likely to take chances, acknowledge when you do make a mistake, and are more likely to blame others. Failure is an indictment of your worth.

However, if you have a GROWTH mindset, you believe that with effort you can improve your qualities and attributes, moderate personality traits and other characteristics. When you fail at a task you use it as a learning experience, you are open to new experiences and challenges, and you take responsibility for your own actions. You accept that outside factors can affect your success or failure, but you are less likely to blame other people. Failure is a learning experience, a problem to be solved.

As you might have guessed from the previous paragraphs. having a growth mindset is the option which best allows us to flourish, though for many people it is doesn’t come naturally. For myself, a growth mindset did not come naturally but developed over time as I observed and reflected on the world around me. If you do feel you have a fixed mindset I would recommend reading this book for its many examples which can guide you towards a growth mindset.

It is worth noting that mindsets may vary in different aspects of our lives. For example, I find it easier to have a growth mindset about my ability to learn something technical than I do about my ability to draw or to sing. Our previous experiences do have some effect on our mindsets.

A growth mindset is not only important in how we view ourselves, it is also important in how we view others. Research has shown that children do better in class when their teacher has a growth mindset. Similarly, a growth mindset in the workplace is likely to encourage collaboration, ongoing professional development and reduce stress.

In conclusion, “Mindset – How you can Fulfil your Potential” by Professor Carol Dweck is a very thought provoking and potentially life changing book, especially if you find fear of failure or the need for constant validation holding you back from what you want to achieve in life.


There is an excellent visual summary of Mindsets here which is particularly directed towards how to support children to growth.

Mindset – How you can Fulfil your Potential by Carol Dweck

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