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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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deirdre.mundy
Dec 02, 2023

So, also, the 'fast learners' don't only practice when the teacher tells them to practice. They also do it on their own, in their head, often without noticing. It's like history. Kids who only learn what they need for the test and promptly forget it are worse off than kids who think about it, make connections, read on their own, think about what they've learned..... The next year rolls around and the 'fast learners' start ahead because they kept thinking about things, the kids who only think about academic subjects when forced have not. You will literally never get a 'slow learner' to 'practice'as much as a fast learner, because much of the practice is self-directed, not inflicted by parents …

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humphrey
Dec 02, 2023

If Jaime requires 30 exercises to "get it" and Keisha requires only 10, then what is Keisha supposed to be doing while she waits for Jaime to catch up? And if Keisha already knows fractions because her mom lets her help make the Thanksgiving pies, then why does she need to do the 10 fractions exercises at all?

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JK Brown
JK Brown
Dec 01, 2023

This seems to indicate treating students as individuals instead of grouping and herding them based on the month/year they were born. Hmm?


But the kids "ahead" may simply have been exposed to how to study by having parents or older siblings who had figured it out. Too bad schools won't teach "students" how to "study".


True or logical study is not aimless mental activity or a passive reception of ideas only for the sake of having them. It is the vigorous application of the mind to a subject for the satisfaction of a felt need. Instead of being aimless, every portion of of effort put forth is an organic step toward the accomplishment of a specific purpose; instead of being…

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m_t_anderson
Dec 01, 2023

Next thing, a similar gaggle of researchers will tell us that all children develop physically at the same rate, so with proper training, they can all become varsity, then professional, athletes. Now pull my other leg.

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superdestroyer
Dec 01, 2023
Replying to

When Carl Lewis was the fastest man in the world, a black academic vowed to find the white Carl Lewis. He failed.

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rob
Dec 01, 2023

Yep, it's the pancakes at home that taught me fractions. Lots and lots of pancakes. Yum.

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