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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Fast learners' started out ahead

There are no fast learners, according to new research, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. Learning rates are remarkably similar -- especially in math and science -- for students using educational software, concludes a Carnegie Mellon study.

“Students are starting in different places and ending in different places,” said Ken Koedinger, a cognitive psychologist and director of Carnegie Mellon’s LearnLab. “But they’re making progress at the same rates.”

It's not what the researchers expected. But, eventually they concluded that students who seem like fast learners have more prior knowledge.

All learners needed practice to learn something new. "On average, it was taking both high and low achievers about seven to eight practice exercises to learn a new concept," writes Barshay. Those who started out ahead needed less. Those who started out behind needed more. But the learning rate was about the same.

Some kids already know a lot about a subject before a teacher begins a lesson. They may have already had exposure to fractions by making pancakes at home using measuring cups. The fact that they mastered a fractions unit faster than their peers doesn’t mean they learned faster; they had a head start.

The educational software that was used "gives students multiple attempts to try things, make mistakes, get feedback and try again," Barshay writes. Sometimes, students were just told if their answer was right or wrong. At other times, "intelligent tutoring systems in math provided hints when students got stuck, offered complete explanations and displayed step-by-step examples."

Without guided practice and feedback, learning rates may differ more, Koedinger believes. There's also more divergence in learning rates for students trying to master English and other languages than in math and science, data showed.

However, students who seem slow may just be those who "haven’t had the same number of practice opportunities and exposure to ideas" as their classmates, Barshay writes. "With the right exercises and feedback, and a bit of effort, they can learn too."

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