Study Debunks Myth of the Fast Learner



In the right conditions, people learn at a remarkably similar rate, researchers report.

The researchers wanted to know why some students learn faster than others. They hoped to identify fast learners, study them, and develop techniques that could help students understand new concepts quickly.

What they found surprised them.

Ken Koedinger, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), led the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He and his team examined data from 1.3 million student interactions from different kinds of educational technologies, including intelligent tutors, online courses, and educational games. The data, gleaned from learning science repository DataShop, indicated that learners master new concepts by having opportunities to practice them.

“The data showed that achievement gaps come from differences in learning opportunities and that better access to such opportunities can help close those gaps,” Koedinger says. “This is further confirmation that these educational technologies can provide favorable learning conditions that make it easier to learn something new, like a second language, or a scientific or math concept.”

If educators understand where their students are starting from, they can help students catch up to their peers by giving them more opportunities to practice the material. For example, they could incorporate a cognitive tutor that can give students instant feedback on homework problems. Koedinger emphasizes the importance of tracking where learners are when they start a class.

“We have all seen cases where somebody gets to a learning outcome sooner than a peer—one student gets an A in algebra and another gets a C. But what we don’t usually track is where they started. Our results are not contradicting that people end up in different places, but accounting for where students are starting from can tell us a lot about where they will end up,” Koedinger says.

Paulo Carvalho, a systems scientist and special faculty at HCII and coauthor, says the paper supports the idea that information sticks with students longer if they are actively engaged while learning, an experience supported by the kinds of educational technology used in this study.

“We have several studies that show that when a student is actively working they tend to do better than if they are just passively reading the materials,” Carvalho says. “The data sets that we use for the PNAS paper all use systems that create favorable conditions for learning—the students are actively engaged, answering questions, and getting immediate feedback, for example.”

The data used in this study was from students from elementary to college courses in math, science, and language. Koedinger says that for all students, a growth mindset is important.

“No matter who you are, you can do it. You might have had fewer prior opportunities in your life, so it may be harder at first than it is for other people, but you will make just as much progress as anyone else as long as you stick to it,” he says.

Additional coauthors of the paper are Elizabeth A. McLaughlin, a scientific technological specialist at HCII and Ran Liu, chief AI scientist at Amira Learning.

Source: Caroline Sheedy for Carnegie Mellon University

Original Study DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2221311120

This post was previously published on under a Creative Commons License.


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