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Speed Limits

There’s no such thing as a fast learner

Today, I’ve asked Paulo Carvalho to share his Tip of the Week. 

Growing up, I felt that I learned some things quickly and other things painfully slowly. Picking up French, Spanish, and Catalan seemed to come naturally, while painting and drawing required a lot of practice. I thought, some people just have a knack for languages that others don’t. 

You’ve probably felt the same way, that certain things were easier for you to learn. And so did my research collaborators. So we set out to identify what makes some people learn faster than others. If we could just distill these unique characteristics, we thought, we would be able to create better learning environments—and make everyone a fast learner.

However, after looking at nearly 7,000 students using different kinds of educational technology (such as online courses and educational games) in more than 1.3 million interactions, we were dumbfounded to find that students learn at surprisingly similar rates. There are no such things as fast and slow learners! 

Students master concepts through opportunities to practice them. They start at different levels of proficiency but, when provided with high-quality practice opportunities, learn at about the same speed. Yes, they will end in different places—but that’s because they have different starting lines, not because they are quicker or slower to learn.

That means the types of opportunities you get matter. Detailed, timely feedback and hints provide favorable conditions that allow you to consistently make progress, regardless of where you began.

Don’t think you’re alone if learning feels slow and effortful. 

Do try, try again. You can make as much progress as everyone else—and so can the young people in your life. Achievement gaps are the result of opportunity gaps, not individual differences in learning speed. 

With gratitude,


Paulo Carvalho is a cognitive scientist and education researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. He studies how we learn and think and how to use technology to improve learning.