10 Characteristics of Effective Learning and How to Observe Them


children in nursery

Effective learning is defined as methods of learning that involve children actively participating in their own learning and personal development.

Research shows that children are more likely to learn by actively talking and listening, writing, reading, and reflecting as this helps them understand and retain the information they have accumulated.

Rather than children simply copying what the teacher is telling them or what other children are doing, with effective learning, they are much involved in their own progress. A good way to think of it is children are ‘learning how to learn’ which results in the development of rich language, concentration and exploration skills.

Effective learning places children and their needs at the centre of the learning process. This is supported by the Curriculum for Excellence (CFE) which helps children and young people gain the skills, knowledge and attributes needed for life.

The aim of the CFE is for children and young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

What Does Effective Learning Look Like?

Classrooms should be active.

They should be a place where children are involved in their own learning and responsible for their personal development. Classrooms should be designed as a collaboration between practitioners and children to create an environment that puts the needs of the child first.

An active classroom is one where learning takes place through doing. Think of a classroom set-up where groups of children are working together on the carpet or around a desk, sharing ideas and collaboratively working to solve a problem.

This demands cooperation and collaboration which are some of the most effective forms of learning. Furthermore, working in groups enhances critical thinking and the ability to work with others to achieve a common goal.

When learners are actively participating in their development, they can identify and set academic goals that will enable them to develop further. By being involved in establishing these goals, they are becoming self-reliant and taking ownership of their own learning.

The characteristics of effective learning form a strong basis of Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and play an important role across all EYFS teaching and assessments in England.

Although particularly significant in the Early Years learning, it can be beneficial to apply these techniques throughout teaching including Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2 and beyond.

Characteristics of Effective Learning?

The children ask more questions – good questions!

Asking questions is so important in the learning process and for effective learning to take place.

If children are participating in learning with no natural curiosity then the chances of meaningful interactions are low.

Children need to engage in the activity which requires questioning why something is a certain way or why something means what it does.

This process further deepens their understanding as they’re looking further into an issue rather than simply accepting what they’ve been told.

Questioning also allows practitioners to check the child’s understanding of a particular subject and keep them engaged with the task at hand.

This increased engagement gives rise to a positive attitude and a sense of pride, as the children feel proud of the effort they’re putting in.

children with hands raised in classroom

Questions Are Valued Over Answers

Questions are more important than answers as they frame and expose a child’s understanding of a piece of work. It also shows that they’re thinking into a subject and working to generate solutions to a problem.

As discussed, lessons should be led by the children asking good questions, but to increase engagement, these questions should have a currency attached. This helps make the activity more interactive and can add a playful element to the activity.

This could include giving out points to those who ask questions or by handing out stickers as rewards.

These small activities increase the likelihood that the children will want to participate, thus increasing effective learning.

Ideas Come From a Variety of Sources

When planning activities, ideas should come from a variety of sources to ensure the children are receiving a variety of information.

You don’t want to narrow down their learning or focus too much in one direction so try to keep your resources broad.

To enable a diversification of information, look towards resources such as the community, content led experts outside of education, and ask the children themselves for ideas.

This enables them to use their imagination and become independent thinkers as they are suggesting their own ideas for content. In addition, this contributes to their sense of self-direction as they are active parts of their own learning.

A Variety of Learning Models Are Used

Every learner learns differently. As human beings, our approach to learning is based on a combination of strengths and preferences, so it’s important to use a variety of learning models to be inclusive of each child.

From project-based learning, direction instruction, peer-to-peer learning, e-learning, mobile learning and so on, there are various models employed depending on the needs of the child and the subject being taught.

How we learn can heavily depend on what we’re learning and sometimes even our preferred mode of learning might not be best suited to the particular task at hand.

As none of the learning models suit every piece of content or curriculum, it’s important to diversify and try a varied approach.

child drawing

Playing and Exploring Increase Engagement

According to the EYFS, children learn by exploring the world around them through their senses. By creating activities that stimulate their senses such as sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch, children will learn about the world in a very natural way.

Repetition is also important for children to practice the skills they’ve learnt and they should be allowed time to play with things they enjoy. They’ll often play with toys that are familiar to them or those they have seen other children using and engage them in imaginative play. Dressing up and role play are good activities for this.

As children will usually choose activities that are familiar to them, they should be encouraged to try new things. However, whilst each activity should present a challenge, it should be age and stage appropriate to help build their confidence.

Practitioners should try and offer as much support as possible, or demonstrate activities so children know what to do.

Learning Is Personalised

Personalised learning aims to customise learning for each child’s strengths, skills, needs and interests.

It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach as rather than practitioners leading all children through the same lesson, they provide individual journeys that are tailored to the individual needs.

Although each child learns at a different pace, the goal of personalised learning is to keep the child on track so they still meet the standards required.

Practitioners can personalise learning by a variety of criteria including assessment results, interest and readiness to learn. By adjusting the pace accordingly, this may help you to ‘uncover’ what a child needs and then tailor the content to suit.

Assessment Is Persistent, Authentic and Fair

Assessments are important as they help practitioners to determine whether a student has understood a piece of work. However, assessments should be more focussed on the needs of the learner rather than purely checking up on what they have learnt.

Practitioners should ask themselves ‘Why are the children being tested? How will this help improve their future learning? What are the benefits?’

These questions can help shape future assessments so they have a meaningful purpose and provide information that can be used to scope further learning.

Also feedback should be provided quickly after an assessment so children know the areas they need to improve on and can start working towards future goals.

Criteria for success is balanced and transparent

Children should never have to guess what ‘success’ means in an effective learning environment. This should be communicated through clear guidance and indicators so they can monitor their own progress.

Success should be measured as part of a cohesive framework that isn’t purely based on participation, assessment results, attitude or other individual factors.

The core element of the framework is that it makes sense to the student, as they need to understand how their development is being monitored and what they can do to grow.

As each child is different, each of their goals will be different, but the key is ensuring each child understands what they are working towards. They should never be asking themselves ‘what does this mean?’ as for a goal to be achievable, they need to be able to envision it.

Tracking assessments for both parents and teachers is made easy with Learning Journals.

Learning Habits Are Constantly Modelled

As a teacher, it’s important to model the process of learning from an adults perspective.

Children often learn from what they see around them and this approach is much more direct and observational.

Demonstrating to children the challenges you have previously faced and talking about how you overcame them, is an effective tool in enabling children to learn from you.

They can then apply these experiences and behaviours when they are faced with a problem as they have the knowledge of how to react.

Traits such as persistence, curiosity, creativity and collaboration are great examples of development characteristics and will help prepare children for future situations.

By simply talking to children about learning, practitioners become more relatable as you’re showing children that you experience the same problems as they do.

As an adult talking about overcoming a problem, you’re also proving that learning is a lifelong process and will continue to benefit the children even outside of the classroom.

teacher at the front of class

There Are Constant Opportunities for Practice

By taking time to reflect on practices, it facilitates learning, growth and renewal throughout the career development of a teacher.

Practitioners are very busy and taking the time out of the working school day to reflect on best practices is not always possible, but this should be consciously built into their schedule to improve future learning.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, American Psychologist:

“Development, it turns out, occurs through this process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else- especially somebody who’s crazy about that child”

Old thinking and ideas can be revisited and reflected on to determine their effectiveness and complex ideas can be re-approached from new angles.

From simple to complex processes, the aim is to maximise a child’s development characteristics and opportunities to learn. This process also helps identify appropriate adjustments for future practices.

Active Learning to Increase Motivation

As part of effective learning as defined by EYFS, children need help to remain focussed and engaged in an activity.

Young children have a short attention span and can become easily distracted so activities should be a combination of child initiated and adult-led activity that can be incorporated into their daily routines.

Practitioners should also ensure that all activities are age appropriate so that children are not being set up to fail if something is too challenging.

It’s more beneficial to their learning to give a child an easy task which can be made progressively harder rather than overloading them with a difficult task they can’t complete.

This allows them to achieve in small stages and slowly pick up new skills.

Adults should also continuously provide support when children are learning any new activity, as this can be a frustrating process so perseverance is key.

two children over a page

10 Characteristics of Effective Learning and How to Observe Them

Effective learning is defined as methods of learning that involve children actively participating in their own learning and personal development. The premise of effective learning is that it is not a one-way process where pupils simply copy what they are told, but a collaborative process where pupils have a pivotal role in their own development.

Rather than just sitting and listening to a teacher talk, for effective learning to take place, children must be actively involved by asking questions, participating in group discussions and using critical thinking to analyse and solve problems.

What’s more, in an effective learner, knowing different strategies or ways or working isn’t enough. It’s about monitoring and reviewing these strategies to maximise their effectiveness so learners can reach their full potential. Hence why effective learning is often referred to as ‘learning how to learn.’

Adults, including practitioners and parents, need to understand how to integrate these development characteristics into a child’s daily routine to enrich their learning experiences.

How Learning Journals Supports Effective Learning

Tracking a child’s learning is a collaborative process between practitioners and caregivers where information needs to be easily recorded, uploaded and shared so any progress can be monitored.

With tools such as creating observations, engaging with parents, and tracking progress, Learning Journals provides a complete platform for measuring your child’s personal development.

Unlike physical folders and documentation, the Learning Journals platform also allows parents to interact with their child’s learning by leaving comments and uploading their own observations from home.

Learning Journals understand that your child’s development matters and places their needs at the forefront.

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