Some Learners Never Improve: Here’s Why

Woman staring out a small window

After years of working with countless learners of all ages, some learners seem to never improve.

In 2015, I created a comprehensive learning system for higher-order self-regulated learning. By 2016, I had realised that very few people are able to learn this system.

A large part was due to my inexperience in training others to use this new system. Improving my teaching and delivery massively improved the success of my students, but there were still many students who could not pick up this tool I had given them.

For the following 5 years, I deeply examined the factors that influenced the success and failure of my students. I now call these factors the enablers of learning: factors that sit outside of pure learning skills that greatly impact a person’s ability to learn efficiently.

Enablers of learning

Enablers of learning are essential to achieving efficient and effective learning. These are the attributes and skills that allow someone to learn new skills and knowledge and apply them consistently. Without them, learning becomes difficult, frustrating, and ineffective. Enablers help individuals to stay motivated and engaged in their learning journey.

Some of the most common enablers include growth mindset, time management, task prioritization, focus, and reflective experiential practice. We will briefly discuss each of these in this article.

Unfortunately, enablers are often overlooked because they are not always visible or tangible. Unlike learning materials, such as textbooks and online courses, enablers are more abstract and require a level of self-awareness and introspection to develop. This means that individuals (including experienced teachers) may not recognize the importance of enablers or may not know how to develop them (like myself in 2015). Enablers are also rarely taught explicitly in traditional education systems. This can lead to a narrow focus on academic achievement at the expense of broader skills such as time management, task prioritization, and reflective experiential practice.

It is also difficult for learners to develop enablers by themselves. Unlike learning a specific skill, such as coding or writing, developing enablers is a continuous process that requires ongoing effort and attention. This can be challenging. Even without considering the general lack of guidance for developing enablers, individuals may not see the immediate benefits of developing enablers, leading to a lack of motivation to continue developing them.

This article serves as a general starting point for those interested in exploring the topic of enablers and lifelong, sustainable learner development.

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the belief that one’s abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This mindset recognizes that failure is an opportunity for growth and learning. A growth mindset allows individuals to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as a path to mastery. Developing a growth mindset is essential for efficient and effective learning because it helps individuals to stay motivated and persevere through difficult tasks. Without a growth mindset (i.e., a fixed mindset), individuals may give up too easily and miss out on growth and learning opportunities.

Individuals with a fixed mindset display these characteristics:

  1. Avoids challenges: Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges because they fear failure. They prefer to stick with what they know and are comfortable with rather than risk failure.
  2. Gives up easily: When faced with setbacks or obstacles, individuals with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily. They may become discouraged and believe that they lack the ability to overcome the challenge.
  3. Focuses on performance: Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to focus on their performance rather than the learning process. They may be more concerned with getting a good grade or receiving recognition for their work than with actually learning and growing.
  4. Avoids effort: Individuals with a fixed mindset may avoid putting in effort because they believe that it will not lead to improvement. They may believe that their abilities are predetermined and that additional effort will not make a difference.
  5. Ignores feedback: Individuals with a fixed mindset may ignore feedback or view it as a personal criticism. They may become defensive when given feedback and resist making changes or improvements.

Recommended readings

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random house.

Time Management

Time management is the ability to set goals and allocate time effectively. Efficient learning requires effective time management because it helps individuals to balance their learning activities with other responsibilities and obligations. Time management involves breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable steps and creating a schedule that maximizes productivity. By managing their time effectively, individuals can ensure they have enough time to learn new skills and knowledge without neglecting other important areas of their life.

Task Prioritisation

Task prioritisation involves identifying the most important tasks and completing them first. Prioritising tasks is essential for efficient and effective learning because it helps individuals to focus on the most critical aspects of their learning journey. Effective task prioritisation requires evaluating the importance and urgency of each task and determining the most effective order in which to complete them. By prioritising their tasks, individuals can ensure that they are progressing towards their learning goals and achieving the desired outcomes.

Task prioritisation and conventional time management are two different but complementary skills that are both important for productivity. Conventional time management involves managing time effectively by setting goals, planning activities, and scheduling tasks. Task prioritisation, on the other hand, involves identifying the most important tasks and completing them first.

In my experience, task prioritisation is more important than time management. However, prioritisation is almost always overlooked in favour of conventional time management strategies. This may be because task prioritisation requires higher-order thinking to judge the importance of each task. It involves decision-making skills and a deeper understanding of each task.


Focus is the ability to concentrate on the task at hand and avoid distractions. Efficient learning requires a high level of focus because it helps individuals to retain information and complete tasks more effectively. Focus involves creating an environment that minimizes distractions, such as turning off notifications on electronic devices, closing unnecessary tabs, and working in a quiet space. By focusing on their learning tasks, individuals can improve their efficiency and effectiveness and achieve their learning goals more quickly.

Many people attempt to improve focus with tips and tricks. However, this approach is ultimately unsustainable. Metacognition and self-awareness are essential for developing focus. Without metacognition and self-awareness, individuals may not recognize when they are becoming distracted or when their attention is wandering. They may not understand the factors that affect their ability to concentrate, such as fatigue, stress, or environmental distractions. This can make it difficult to develop focus because individuals may not be aware of the underlying factors that are affecting their attention.

Reflective Experiential Practice

Practice does not make perfect. In reality, people can make the same mistake over and over again until they give up.

Reflective experiential practice involves reflecting on one’s experiences and using that reflection to inform future learning. This type of practice helps individuals to learn from their mistakes and successes and apply that learning to future tasks. However, many people struggle to do reflective experiential practice correctly. This can be due to a lack of introspection and self-awareness, rushing of reflection, or general openness to feedback or personal criticisms. In some cases, reflection can trigger anxiety and negative thought spirals. Therefore, critical reflection is a skill that should be taught carefully and accurately.

In my experience, I have often observed educators encouraging reflective practice with very little structure and guidance. This can cause learners to believe reflective practice is useless and be put off the concept of reflective practice in the future. In our program, we introduce reflective practice using a modified version of Kolb’s experiential cycle, giving consistent feedback for a period of weeks or months until technique accuracy is adequate.


Enablers of learning are critical to achieving efficient and effective learning. These include growth mindset, time management, task prioritization, focus, and reflective experiential practice. By developing these enablers, individuals can become more efficient learners, achieve their learning goals, and improve their ability to learn new skills and knowledge. Whether you are a student, professional, or lifelong learner, developing these enablers can help you to achieve success in your learning journey.

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