Whether you’re studying for a college course or trying to improve at your favorite sport, there are three factors that determine how successful you will be. These factors are: (1) your natural abilities, (2) the amount of effort that you put into learning, and (3) how optimized your learning process is.
The following article explains the role that each of these factors plays in your learning, and shows you how you can use this knowledge in order to learn things more effectively.
Let’s start with the obvious: natural abilities absolutely matter. That is, the smarter and more talented you are, the easier it will be for you to learn new things.
However, having or lacking natural abilities does not guarantee success or failure in most cases. 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. Conversely, plenty of people who are not genetically-gifted manage to succeed, because they are willing to put in the work, and because they know how to study effectively.
There are, of course, exceptions. On the one hand, some geniuses can ace any class without studying at all. On the other hand, most people don’t have the body type necessary to become an NBA player, regardless of how much they’re willing to practice.
However, in the vast majority of cases, our innate abilities cannot guarantee success, or prevent us from reaching our goals. In fact, the majority of studies show that factors such as self-discipline are as good and sometimes even better predictors of success 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 or not.
Simply put, 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.
However, increasing the amount of time and effort that you put into learning doesn’t improve your results in a straightforward, linear way. Let’s say, for example, that you’re willing to dedicate 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 single 2-hour study session, once a day, for the 4 days before your test.
In most cases, the second option will give you much better results, without changing the amount of time and effort you put into the learning process overall. This shows that while you do have to work hard in order to succeed, the way in which you study 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.
Optimization of the learning process
The more optimized your learning process is, the more successful you will be at learning.
This is the most crucial factor to consider, since you can’t control your natural abilities, and since putting in effort without studying in a smart way is often difficult and ineffective. At the same time, relatively simple modifications to your learning strategy will not only help you achieve better results, but will also help you save time and effort, while increasing the enjoyment that you derive from the learning process.
There are a lot of ways you can optimize your learning. I’ve written about some, and you can find other methods that are relevant to your situation by searching the web. This can be anything from using color coding to improve your vocabulary-learning process if you’re learning a new language, to choosing whether you should take notes by hand or on a laptop during lectures.
Essentially, in order to optimize your learning process, you should be constantly asking the following questions:
- Is what I’m doing effective? That is, is the method I’m using helping me learn the material in a way that is relevant to how I will be expected to use it later? Is there a different method, or some modification I can make, that will help me to learn the material in a way that translates better to how I will use it?
- 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?
Note that there is nothing wrong with finding a method that requires you to work less hard and study for shorter amounts of time in order to achieve roughly the same results. 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 that 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.
What all this means for you
Essentially, your success at learning new material 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 gifted you are. You can control how much effort you put into learning, but working hard without using smart learning strategies is inefficient, and generally leads to sub-optimal learning outcomes. 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 far more enjoyable.
Summary and conclusions
- Your learning outcomes are determined based on free 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. However, 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 it in the best way possible.
- The most important factor to consider 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 by using effective learning strategies. To ensure that you do this, and that you study in the best way possible, always ask yourself whether there are any changes you can make that will help you learn the material in a way that relates better to how you will be expected to use it, and whether there are changes that will allow you to accomplish more for the same amount of effort.