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Uncovering the Truth about Effective Learners

The characteristics of effective learners are found by looking beyond the marks in a grade book.

By Lani Aquino

What do effective learners look like? Are they the punctual students that bring all the necessary supplies? Is their handwriting so legible it could be turned into a new font? Do they cross every t and dot every i with a smile? Possibly, but these aren’t the characteristics that make them effective learners. In defining the characteristics of an effective learner, the focus has to be on the learning, rather than the compliance factor of how well students “do” at school. Students don’t have to be compliant to learn effectively, the two aspects are not mutually exclusive.

So many debates about the use of grades exist due to this very notion of exclusivity. Grades that factor in the modicum of compliance are misrepresentative of learning. When grades are unable to truly represent whether learning has taken place, both effective and ineffective learners can earn the same letter grade. With this being the case, the story told by grades becomes one that holds no truth. In order to define the characteristics of an effective learner, one has to look beyond the marks in a grade book and look at each student in terms of the personal learning paths taken. The commonalities shared as effective learners travel these paths are sure to include the following four characteristics.

Self- advocacy

Effective learners will possess the ability to self-advocate. These students are able to demonstrate their level of mastery and easily communicate their understanding of standards and curricular concepts. Due to the inaccuracies of grade reporting, many educators are moving away from the usage of grades, and for those working in environments where grades are still utilized, the assignment of grades may have taken on a very non-traditional format of self-grading. As self-advocates, effective learners can easily adapt to this system of “grading” and self-reporting. The ability to give a plausible rationale for achieving a particular level of mastery is something an effective learner can easily do.


An internal drive or motivation will be possessed by effective learners. When the eye on the prize is one that features a point value or grade, the learning can become lost. If a student strives to improve for the sake of points rather than to possess more knowledge or gain a deeper understanding of content, the reasoning behind learning becomes flawed and what is learned no longer takes precedence. Mastery and improving oneself will take center stage with effective learners. The want for increasing their learning potential will outweigh a few arbitrary and often subjective marks placed in a gradebook.


Effective learners will not turn to teachers, parents, or other stakeholders to make things happen for them. These students will look to make things happen for themselves. This resourcefulness may be shown in the form of garnering what is needed to tackle academic challenges, or it may also be shown as students tackle everyday life. An effective learner will not be found sitting and waiting for someone else to show them the way when a roadblock is encountered. They will self-advocate to gain the assistance required to move forward or simply research and determine the best way to move forward of their own accord.


The idea of an innate curiosity has been touted as one of the key qualities possessed by effective learners. When students are fueled by a want to know more and expand their knowledge base, this will transfer positively into their educational endeavors and beyond. As students explore the standards and curriculum presented, they will be sparked to delve deeper into concepts and/or pursue tangents they encounter within a course of study. Learning won’t be a simple checklist that is marked and completed. There will be a motivation to continue that learning beyond the confines of the classroom and coursework presented.

When students are self-advocates that possess motivation, resourcefulness, and curiosity, they have a strong and positive foothold for their educational journeys. These characteristics of effective learners are all intertwined. While some elements may be stronger than others from student to student, one common factor will be that grades are not at the forefront. In defining effective learners, the learning and how it is pursued will always take precedence.

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.

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