5 Traits of the Super Learner

How strong is your capacity to learn? Can you leap complex concepts with a single bound? Master a new language faster than a speeding locomotive? Roll your eyes at hyperbole without even blinking? Perhaps you are a super learner.

Secrets of the Super-Learners” is an article from a 1991 Harvard Magazine supplement that I seem to have tucked away in my “read later” file at some unknown point in the past. Somehow I stumbled across it again in the past week and it timeless observations struck me as a nice complement to my last posting on Five Themes for the Web 2.0 Learner.

The author, Craig Lambert, identifies five “secrets” of super learners (I prefer “traits,” as I don’t see anything particularly secret about these):

  • Wonder
  • Humility
  • Synthetic Thinking
  • Patience
  • Relishing Mistakes

The article, built off of input from an array of Harvard professors, is a short, enjoyable read, so I won’t summarize it here. I will, however, draw a few connections between these five traits and the Web 2.0 themes I suggested in my last posting and/or elsewhere on Mission to Learn:

A combination of curiosity and, as one of the teachers quoted in the article puts it, “the capacity to be grabbed by something and really want to pursue it.” I view this as akin to the will to learn mentioned in an earlier posting by that title. In the Web 2.0 world, this wonder really needs to be accompanied by a heightened consciousness of both the opportunities and the challenges that the massive flow of information through the Net represents.

As one teacher puts it, “the student who is a better learner will have a clearer sense of his or her own weaknesses.” And his or her own strengths, as well, I would argue. Know thyself, in other words. I think the importance of this trait—Self Knowledge in the Web 2.0 learner themes post—increases significantly for the independent learner who must set her own priorities and self correct.

Synthetic Thinking
“Super-learners aren’t passive; they don’t simply absorb information but actively reconstitute it into meaningful patterns.” This trait aligns with both Insight and Connection in the themes posting. In the Web 2.0 world, learning is characterized by being to “read” and think synthetically in the context of a growing, changing, and diverse network

The article quotes Howard Gardner: “…successful learners believe—from experience—that there is a high, if not complete, correlation between amount of sustained effort and ultimate performance.” I don’t really touch on this trait in the themes posting, mostly because I am not sure Web 2.0 has changed anything in this area. If you want to get to Carnegie Hall, it still takes practice, practice, practice, just like it always has. But it occurs to me that patience, and perhaps more importantly, persistence is essential for building truly valuable, diverse, and reliable connections over time.

Relishing Mistakes
“Good learners make lots of mistakes, just as poor learners do. But they learn from their mistakes.” Again, this is something that does not seem all that different in a Web 2.0 world, though perhaps there are more opportunities for trying things and making mistakes without significant consequences. One comment on the themes post suggested that “application” should be one of the themes. I’m still thinking about that, but if I were to add it, I would probably do so on the basis of this “mistake-friendly” characteristic of Web 2.0.

What do you think? Other “secrets” you would suggest? How do these relate to your learning efforts in a Web 2.0 world? I welcome your thoughts.


8 thoughts on “5 Traits of the Super Learner”

  1. Jonathan – Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure the definition of “traits” dictates that they are innate. In any case, I certainly understand – and completely agree with – your point. These are things that can and should be learned, cultivated, and improved upon throughout life. Looks like a great class you teach. – Jeff

  2. Thanks for the article! I would prefer if you didn’t call them “traits” though but rather “habits” – as anyone can learn to become a superlearner, whether or not they have some innate “traits.” In fact, I teach superlearning on Udemy, and this is one of the first things I tell my students – you CAN do it.


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