The Factors that Determine Success at Learning

The Three Factors which Determine How Successful You Are at Learning


Whether you’re studying for a college course, practicing a new language, or trying to improve at your favorite sport, there are three factors that determine how successful your learning process will be. These factors are your natural abilities, the amount of effort that you put into learning, and how optimized your learning process is.

In the following article, you will learn more about the role that each of these factors plays in your learning. Then, you will see how you can use this knowledge in practice, in order to improve your learning process.


How natural abilities affect learning

When it comes to learning, your natural abilities matter. This means that the more naturally talented you are, the easier it will be for you to learn new things and improve your skills.

However, the presence or absence of natural abilities does not guarantee success or failure in most cases. First, plenty of naturally gifted people fail because they don’t want to put in the necessary effort, or because they don’t know how to utilize their potential. Furthermore, plenty of people who aren’t naturally gifted do manage to succeed, because they’re willing to put in the necessary work, and because they manage to figure out how to make their learning process more effective.

There are, of course, exceptions to this, on both ends of the scale. Specifically, some people might be so incredibly talented that they will succeed no matter what, as in the case of people who are so smart that they can ace any class without spending any time studying. Furthermore, some people might lack certain crucial skills, in a way that will prevent them from achieving a specific goal, as in the case of people who simply don’t have the body type necessary to become a top NBA player, regardless of how much they’re willing to practice.

Nevertheless, in most cases, our innate abilities cannot guarantee success or prevent us from reaching our goals.

In addition, many studies show that factors such as self-discipline are just as important and sometimes even more important when it comes to achieving success at learning than factors such as intelligence. One study, for example, found that conscientiousness, or the trait of being “organized, purposeful, driven, and self-disciplined”, is the best predictor of academic achievement, and accounts for five times as much variance in students’ grades as does intelligence.

Overall, we can say that in most cases, natural abilities are important to our success in the learning process, but they mostly determine how much effort we need to put into learning, rather than whether we will be successful at learning or not.

Note: in general, the greater your goals are, in terms of learning, the more your natural abilities will matter, because the more likely you are to reach a point where putting in more effort and optimizing your learning process simply isn’t enough. This issue is common, for example, when it comes to learning goals that involve direct competition with others. At the same time, however, the greater your goals are, the less likely your natural abilities are to guarantee success, because the more likely you are to reach a point where simply being talented isn’t enough.


How effort affects learning

All things being equal, the more effort you put into learning, the more successful you will be, up to a certain point. For example, if you study for 4 hours before a test, you’ll generally do better than if you study for only 2 hours, assuming that you use the same study techniques in both cases.

However, not all the time and effort that you put into learning lead to the same results. For example, consider a situation where you can dedicate a total of 8 hours of your time to study for a certain test. You can spend those hours in one of the following ways:

  • A cram-session the night before the test, where you spend 8 hours in a row going over the material.
  • A series of 4 study sessions, each one lasting 2 hours, conducted over the course of the days before your test.

In general, the second option will give you much better results, despite the fact that you’ll be putting roughly the same amount of time and effort into the learning process in both cases. This demonstrates the fact that while you do usually have to put in significant effort in order to succeed, the way in which you learn is just as important as how much effort you choose to put in, if not more,

This leads us to the final factor which determines how successful you will be at learning: how optimized your learning process is.


How optimizing the learning process affects learning

Simply put, the better optimized your learning process is, the more successful it will be.

Of the three factors that affect your learning, this is generally the most important one to consider, since you can’t control your natural abilities, and since putting in effort without studying in a smart way can be unnecessarily difficult, demotivating, and ineffective. Accordingly, by improving your learning process, even through relatively minor modifications, you can not only help yourself achieve better results, but also save yourself time and effort, while also increasing the enjoyment that you derive from the learning process.

You can optimize your learning process by improving the way in which you learn the material. For example, you can, as we saw earlier, space out your learning instead of cramming it all at once. Similarly, you can identify the key points in the material, that will matter most when it comes to improving your skills, and then focus on them in your learning.

Overall, the better optimized your learning process is, the more you will benefit from the effort that you put into learning. This means that optimizing your learning process will allow you to be more successful in your learning, while also emphasizing the fact that regardless of how optimized your learning process is, you will still need to put in some effort into learning.


The role of environment in learning

The environment in which you learn can significantly affect your learning process, meaning that a bad learning environment can hinder your learning, while a good learning environment can facilitate it.

For example, if you study in a place with loud and distracting noises, you will likely achieve worse outcomes than you will if you study somewhere quiet or with moderate sounds that help you concentrate. Similarly, if you try to learn a certain skill as part of a team where other members aren’t interested in improving, you will likely achieve worse outcomes than you will if you try to learn that skill as part of a team whose members are all actively trying to get better together with you.

The learning environment is one of the main factors that affect how optimized your learning process is. As such, you should strive to improve it wherever possible, though there might be situations where your learning environment will have some flaws that you can’t resolve.


The practical implications of these factors

As we saw so far, your success at learning depends on three factors:

  • How naturally gifted you are.
  • How much effort you put into learning.
  • How optimized your learning process is.

You can’t control how naturally gifted you are. You can control how much effort you put into learning, but working hard without using a good learning process is both inefficient, which means that it causes you to work harder than necessary, and ineffective, which means that it limits your ability to properly learn the material.

As such, your focus should be on optimizing your learning process, and studying in the smartest way possible. Doing this will not only improve your learning outcomes, but will also save you time and effort, while making the learning process itself more enjoyable.


How to optimize the learning process

In order to optimize your learning process, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is what I’m doing efficient? That is, am I learning the material in a way that gives me the best results for the effort I’m putting in? Is there a different method, or some modification I can make, that will allow me to achieve similar results, while taking less time and requiring less effort?
  • Is what I’m doing effective? That is, is the method I’m using helping me learn the material well, and in a way that is relevant to how I expect to use it later? Is there a different method, or some modification I can make, that will help me to learn the material better?

Then, based on your answers to these questions, you should modify the learning process, to make it as efficient and effective as possible. There are many ways in which you can achieve this, including, for example, the following:

  • Use interleaving, which is a learning technique which involves mixing together different topics or forms of practice, in order to facilitate learning.
  • Take advantage of the protégé effect, which is a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps you learn that information.
  • Focus on knowledge-building in your learning, which involves analyzing the learning material in-depth, by doing things such as highlighting key points, restructuring various sections, and drawing connections between different parts.

Furthermore, some optimizations might be relevant to a particular situation that you’re engaged in. For example, if you’re trying to learn vocabulary in a new language, you could benefit from using color-coding techniques. Similarly, if you need to take notes in a lecture, you could make sure to understand the advantages and disadvantages of taking notes by hand or on a laptop, and then pick the approach that is better in your particular situation.

To find relevant tips and techniques that will apply in your particular situation, you can ask for advice from fellow learners or from people who are experts on the topic, or you can search for relevant information online (e.g. by looking for “tips on how to learn X”).

Note: there is nothing wrong with finding a learning technique that requires you to work less hard and study for less time in order to achieve roughly the same results as your original, un-optimized technique. If you want, you can always choose to dedicate the same amount of time to learning, regardless of how optimized your learning process is, in which case, the only difference will be that you’ll get a better return on your investment of time and effort, in terms of how successful you are at learning.


Avoid premature optimization

Premature optimization is the act of trying to make things more efficient at a stage when it is too early to do so. For example, when it comes to learning a new sport, premature optimization could involve spending a lot of time picking out the absolute best gear for the sport, before you’ve even started practicing it.

You should avoid premature optimization when it comes to your learning, because it can lead to a variety of issues, such as wasting resources or being distracted from the learning process itself.

To avoid it, you should make sure to ask yourself whether optimizing things is the best course of action at any given moment, especially if you’re at the early stages of the learning process. Specifically, you can examine any potential optimization, and ask yourself how likely is it that this optimization will become obsolete later, what are the advantages and disadvantages of postponing this optimization, and what else could you could work on if you don’t focus on this optimization.


Avoid excessive optimization

When it comes to your learning process, not all optimizations are created equal, and you should avoid implementing optimizations that hinder your learning more than they benefit it, such as if they require more time and effort to implement than they save.

Optimizations can be excessive either because they are inherently flawed, either in general or in your particular situation, or because you’ve already implemented so many optimizations that you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, where added optimizations are no longer beneficial.

As such, it’s important to assess the value of any given optimization, both before and after you implement it. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is the 80/20 rule, which in this case suggests that you will derive 80% of the benefits from 20% of the optimizations that you make, and which can help you figure out which optimizations to focus on and which ones to drop.

Finally, an important thing to remember is that, while optimizing your learning process is certainly beneficial, at the end of the day you will still need to put time and effort into the learning process itself.

Accordingly, you should avoid engaging in excessive optimization as a way to avoid putting in effort into learning. A good way to make sure that you’re not doing this is to compare the amount of time that you spend optimizing the learning process to the amount of time that you spend learning, and then see whether you spend more time optimizing the learning process than you do on actual learning.


Summary and conclusions

  • Your learning outcomes are based on three main factors: how naturally talented you are, how much effort you put into learning, and how optimized your learning process is.
  • Natural ability is the one factor that you cannot change, but while it can influence your final learning outcomes and the amount of effort that you need to put into learning, in most cases high-level abilities do not guarantee success and low-level abilities do not guarantee failure.
  • Effort is an important factor that you can control, and to succeed you will always have to put in some effort; however, it is generally ineffective to just increase the amount of effort that you put into learning, without considering how to utilize that effort in the best way possible.
  • The most important factor to consider when it comes to learning is how optimized your learning process is, since this is the one factor where you can make small changes that lead to significant improvements in your learning outcomes.
  • You can optimize your learning process in various ways, such as by using effective learning techniques, though you should make sure to avoid premature and excessive optimization, especially in cases where it distracts you from the learning process or hinders your progress more than it helps it.