Expert Learners:

Introduction to Expert Learning


Who wouldn't want to become an expert learner—someone who really knows how to tackle learning and gets consistently good results? But what are expert learners, really, and how do they get that way?

Three Key Characteristics

Let's start with three key characteristics of this group. Expert learners:

Actively Engage

Expert learners actively engage with material to be learned. They are not lazy thinkers or passive readers or listeners. Mel Silberman (1996) coined the Active Learning Credo:

What I hear, I forget.
What I hear and see, I remember a little.
What I hear, see, and ask questions about or discuss with someone else, I begin to understand.
What I hear, see, discuss, and do, I acquire knowledge and skill.
What I teach to another, I master.

As the progression above demonstrates, the more actively engaged a learner is with the content, the better she learns and the more she remembers.

Take Responsibility

Expert learners take responsibility for their own learning. They view learning as something they do for themselves, not something that is done to them or for them.

Stop and think about that. It's quite different from what most of us are raised to believe.

Practice Self-Regulated Learning

Expert learners use specific processes to motivate themselves and to guide their own learning. These processes can be summarized in a model of self-regulated learning (SRL)—specific ways in which learners take control over their own learning.

What Makes Expert Learners Different?

Based on these three key characteristics and on related research findings, we can come up with several specific ways that expert learners or self-regulated learners differ from less skilled learners. Expert learners:

  • Control the learning process rather than become a victim of it
  • Are active, not passive, in their approach to learning
  • Are motivated (e.g., enjoy learning, have specific short-term and long-term goals, etc.)
  • Are disciplined (i.e., have learned good habits and use them consistently)
  • Are more aware of themselves as learners (e.g., know their own strengths and weaknesses)
  • Initiate opportunities to learn
  • Set specific learning goals for themselves
  • Have a larger repertoire of learning strategies from which to choose
  • Know not only what to learn, but how to learn
  • Plan their approach to learning
  • Monitor their learning while it's happening (e.g., notice when they're not learning and adjust their learning approach)
  • Are more adaptive because they do self-monitor while learning
  • Reflect more upon their own learning
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of learning approaches and strategies
  • Are more sensitive to the demands of specific academic tasks
  • Use learning strategies selectively
  • Use learning strategies strategically
  • Tend to attribute failures to correctable causes
  • Tend to attribute successes to personal competence

As a result of these differences, expert learners ultimately learn more with less effort. There's definitely a learning curve, but the pay-off is well worth the effort.

How Do They Do It?

The short answer to the question "How do they do it?" is by consistently applying a model of self-regulated learning (SRL).


  • Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1996). The Expert Learner: Strategic, Self-Regulated, and Reflective. Instructional Science, 24:1-24.
  • Robinson, A. (1993). What Smart Students Know. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (1998). Self-Regulated Learning: From Teaching to Self-Reflective Practice. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Weinstein, C. E., & Van Mater Stone, G. (1993). Broadening Our Conception of General Education: The Self-Regulated Learner. New Directions in Community Colleges, 81:31-39.
  • Zimmerman, B. J., Bonner, S., & Kovach, R. (1996). Developing Self-Regulated Learners. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Page last modified: September 04 2011.