Why do some learners succeed while others struggle?
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Why do some learners succeed while others struggle?

Most learners experience some measure of discomfort during the learning process. It’s rare that someone learns a new skill and immediately transforms into an expert without any hurdles or stumbling blocks along the way.

Struggle is a natural part of the learning process. But while some learners recognize this and rise to the challenge, others are deflated by it. So what separates successful, motivated learners from those who become demotivated?

The research

A study conducted at Rice University set out to identify the specific factors that separate highly successful learners from the rest. Researchers analyzed 61 separate experimental studies on educational attainment to look for common factors that lead to learner success in the face of a challenge.

The researchers identified three primary factors that highly successful learners possess – qualities that result in higher motivation and performance when learning new skills.

  1. A growth mindset. A growth mindset is the learner’s belief that he or she has the ability to learn and grow beyond their innate talents. A growth mindset outlook has been proven to be a critical difference between successful and unsuccessful learners.
  1. A sense of belonging. If learners do not feel supported and safe in the learning environment, they may not fully invest in the training process. But if learners are socially connected to their peers and feel supported by their manager and the organization, they will be more likely to push through the struggles and work hard to acquire new skills.
  1. Personal goals and values. When learners can connect a new skill or piece of knowledge to a future career (or personal) goal, they are much more willing to stay motivated in the face of failure. It’s important to help learners see the end result of the learning process and how it will benefit them down the line.


Below are some suggestions on how to utilize the research to instill the three qualities of successful, motivated learners within your organization.

Ensure learners maintain a growth mindset.

Challenges can arise that throw learners off their game and discourage them from putting their all into workplace learning. But maintaining a growth mindset can turn those challenges into normal, tiny bumps in the road to proficiency.

If learners struggle, remind them that struggle is natural and that they have the ability to improve – it simply takes a commitment to working through the challenges and a belief that they will indeed get better over time (a belief that is amply supported by research, by the way).

Create a comfortable psychological space.

Failure isn’t fun. While some learners can quickly shake it off, others may be more negatively affected by the typical stumbling blocks in the learning process.

The learning environment should be a place where your learners feel comfortable failing – where there is no stigma attached to trying something new for the first time and falling flat on your face. Learning professionals and peers should be there to offer constructive feedback and help each other improve. Not only will this lead to a space where learners feel safe, but it will encourage experimentation – which could lead to discovering even more successful ways of doing things.

Connect the learning material to learners’ lives.

Learners will be more motivated if they see a clear connection between what they are learning and how that knowledge will help them in the future. One technique mentioned in the study: Ask learners to write down how acquiring a specific new skill will help them in their career and, depending on the material, possibly even their lives outside of work.



National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Supporting students’ college success: The role of assessment of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:https://doi.org/10.17226/24697.

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