Since our earliest school days, we generally accept the idea that some people learn faster than others – but, according to a new study, it turns out that we actually learn at very similar rates given the same opportunities.
Researchers looked at 1.3 million "student interactions" across a variety of learning software tools used by 6,946 learners ranging from late elementary schoolers to college students. The gathered data covered a variety of subjects and multiple formats, including online courses and educational games.
The new analysis revealed that the starting point for learners, and their opportunity to practice what they had taken on board, had the most influence over their academic performance, rather than any learning rate.
"The data showed that achievement gaps come from differences in learning opportunities and that better access to such opportunities can help close those gaps," says Ken Koedinger, a cognitive psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.
"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."
The researchers wanted to get answers to three questions: How much practice is needed to learn something? How much does initial performance vary between students? And how much do students differ in their learning rate?
On average, students needed seven opportunities to learn something, though this varied between individuals. The new study showed that this variation was more down to where the students were starting from rather than their ability to learn faster.
The researchers say that being able to actively engage with learning experiences was important too. The education tools included in the study encouraged interactivity and were able to provide instant feedback to students, which also helped.
"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," says Keodinger. "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."
The team suggests that our brains can take different 'mental routes' to learn something, which means our learning rates aren't too different – we can all get to the same point in the way that best suits our experiences and knowledge.
That's backed up by the study: Where there were learning rate differences, they were more prominent in languages, which require a lot of rote learning or memorization. Previous studies have also spotted different kinds of mental activity when learning the same information, suggesting a personalized approach.
This is all useful in figuring out the best ways to pass on knowledge and set up educational courses. Many factors are at play when it comes to learning, including how we adapt to our mistakes, but the researchers behind the latest study want to emphasize that we're all capable of learning.
"No matter who you are, you can do it," says systems scientist Paulo Carvalho from Carnegie Mellon University.
"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."
The research has been published in PNAS.