How to be a successful learner

How to be a successful learner:
6 Essentials.

Having been a teacher for the last 17 years I have dedicated a lot of time to the pursuit of being a good one.
When I decided to learn to play the cello at age 35 I quickly realised that whilst having a good teacher certainly helped, it was me doing all the hard work!
I started to think, read and ask about what it means to be a good LEARNER.
Here’s what I discovered….


First and foremost, we have to persevere. We have to KEEP AT IT. We must KEEP GOING.
We have to make a sustained commitment to what we have chosen to do.
Why is this so hard? Why can the learning process frustrate us so much? Why do we start each year with such good intentions that abandon us before we’ve reached our goal?
I believe, in part, it’s because we want to be perfect.
The first thing I need to make clear here is that seeking perfection is a fool’s game!
As we get better in our chosen field we become more demanding of ourselves, which means we will never reach that desired state of perfection because it’s parameters are constantly evolving just out of our reach! Think of it as trying to sail to the horizon…we’re NEVER going to get there.

When we are actively and meaningfully engaged we not only enjoy more of what we are doing but absorb more of it too.

We frequently forget this however and so we want to be able to deliver a persuasive presentation in a second language, perform a complex piece of music, play a winning round of golf, run a highly successful business, or be able to do the salamba shirshasana as well as we do in our fantasies.
More often than not, we can’t. This makes us feel far from the ultimate goal we have set ourselves. It is demotivating and disappointing and makes us question the point of our endeavour.
I LOVE everything about my experience with the cello, even so, I regularly feel like I’m never going to be able to play to the standard I would like and so why bother?!?!
For some of my students, those who DON’T LOVE learning English, getting through this is even harder.
In these moments, it becomes paramount that we…DO NOT GIVE UP! We do NOT QUIT!
There are numerous things you can do to get you through these dark times [click here for some tips]
The absolute best thing we can do in these moments is …


I can’t stress the importance of feeling inspired enough.
This spills over into all aspects of life!
When we are actively and meaningfully engaged we not only enjoy more of what we are doing but absorb more of it too.
As learners we need to ensure we are connected to what we are doing.
We need to keep the learning process feeling fresh and dynamic. We need to be actively looking for things that interest us.
We need to take control of our learning process by being self-directed.
We need to ask the people we admire questions and we need to make suggestions to our teachers.
We need to discover what resonates with us.
Not only will this research make our learning more relevant to us, but it will have the added bonus of keeping us fully engaged with what we are doing.
It will prevent us from thinking about the goals we set ourselves, which all too often distract us from the process we have to go through to reach them.
By keeping ourselves inspired we ensure that during the time we dedicate to learning, either with a teacher or alone, our attention will be on what we are actually doing and not on what we want to be able to do.
And of course, the only way we are going to get closer to what we want to be able to do is by working on what needs to be done to get there!
If we want to be truly successful learners, we need to work on becoming good learners, both effective and efficient!
We will achieve this by working on our ability to...


In my experience as a student trying to learn to play cello and as a teacher observing my students trying to learn English, complete concentration on the task at hand is something incredibly hard to achieve.
We all constantly have distracting inner-dialogues. Perhaps we are thinking about the important meeting we have in the morning, or what we should’ve but didn’t say in the last meeting. Perhaps we are thinking about how much better we want to be and how far we are from that point. Perhaps we are thinking about what we want for dinner!
Not one of these thoughts has a place in the time we allot to learning. They serve no purpose.
They only distract us from what we should be doing and in the case of negative self-criticism, which I think all learners have subjected themselves to at some point, can actually damage our development.
We have to learn to turn all inner-dialogues off and truly be present in our endeavours.
We need to work on being able to focus if we are going to become truly great learners.
It’s widely acknowledged that the results of such intense concentration are astounding.
We should all be making a commitment to ourselves in our chosen field of learning to dedicate some time to complete concentration each day. I ask my students for 20 minutes a day of their undivided attention.
It takes a while to get used to focusing with such intensity but IT WORKS. I can testify to this as both a teacher and a student. I can also assure you that it’s something we are all capable of.
Integrating perseverance into our activities, finding ready channels of inspiration and learning to focus like Buddha himself are all well and good, but what we really need to do now is …


This one is hard to stomach, but it’s also incredibly liberating once it’s been assimilated.

It is important for our sanity to accept our position in the grand scheme of things and learn to be OK with exactly where we are on our path at any given moment.

I know, as a cellist who started playing at the age of 35, that I will NEVER dominate the cello in the way that Pau Casals did.
This is devastating and incredibly disheartening!
BUT…it’s an unchangeable fact.
So, what can we do with this information?
Personally, I have learned not to demand of myself totally unrealistic things, like being able to play like Pau Casals!
More importantly I've learned to change my thought pattern about the process.
It has gone from “Why didn’t you start earlier?” and “You’ll never be as good as Pau Casals” to “Wow…..look at what you have achieved” and “Who would ever have thought you would get this far”.
I am really proud of where I have come with the cello and remind myself of my progress often.
As a new small business owner [which, I’m discovering, is all about learning!] I know that I will never have the International presence of IH or The British Council.
Does that devalue what I do? NOOOO!!!
My contribution is equally as valuable, if not as big!
Many of my English students are frustrated with their level. Students that started learning at a later stage in life, that have never lived abroad or never had an English-speaking lover, [which is apparently the absolute best way to learn a language!] often get disheartened, frustrated and demotivated.
I get them to look at all they have achieved rather than all they haven’t.
Let’s face it, not everyone is going to get to be Pau Casals, Shakespeare or the guy who founded IH anyway…
And that’s OK.
It is important for our sanity to accept our position in the grand scheme of things and learn to be OK with exactly where we are on our path at any given moment.
We can never, however, use that as an excuse not to try …….really hard!
Now it's time to....


You need to challenge yourself if you’re going to develop.
You need to put yourself in scary situations. You need to be open to experiences where your heart rate quickens with nerves!
Here I need to stress that before you jump boldly where you’ve never been before, you are not to use the experience as a way to torture yourself afterwards with how bad you were!
Go into it with as little emotion as possible.
Observe yourself neutrally.
If you make a mistake, which you more than likely will, correct it, do it right next time and move on. Don’t waste anytime telling yourself off!
There’s no value in it.
For my 40th birthday I gave myself a present of a year at the Liceu music school in Barcelona. It was an exhilarating year but also petrifying in so many ways. The most challenging moment was performing on the great stage in the Liceu theatre. I had prepared for it as best I could but was, understandably, painfully nervous. Once I had got over the initial shock of being on a stage where performers I admired had stood and having thousands of eyes on us, I focused on the job at hand and it was OK. Most notably, I didn’t die! Yes, I made some mistakes, but there were some beautiful moments too and it helped me see what I needed to work on.
Most importantly, the experience pushed me to want to be better.
An English student of mine was asked to pick up some British artists from the airport who were performing at a festival in the centre of Barcelona. “I’ll have to talk to them for the whole journey” she told me with nervous fear in her voice. She was scared, but she did it. Afterwards she said “Next year I want to be able to speak to them more”.
This is what I have experienced and seen time and time again.
When we put ourselves in scary situations, we want to do it again afterwards.
We want to have another go. We want another opportunity to do it better.
These challenges we set ourselves drive us to want to be better. This is a great motivator.
Which brings us to our final point....


Why are we learning what we are learning?
For many people learning English is about being able to get a better job to be able to provide a better life for their family.
Learning karate might be about fulfilling a childhood dream.
Learning how to run a business might have come from wanting to have greater autonomy over who you work with.
Whatever your reasons for learning what you’re learning, studying what you’re studying, doing what you’re doing they are valid and important and you should constantly refer back to them.
When the going gets tough, remind yourself of why you started your quest.
And then go back to number 1!

By Sarah Jane

18th July 2019

by logo Elettra