The pace at which students learn depends upon many factors, including the individual’s interest, attention and memory capacity. Barbara Clark, Professor Emeritus of California State University, Los Angeles and the author of Growing up Gifted, describes memory as the “ability to invoke or repeat a specific mental image or a physical act.” Daniel Siegel and Beth Seraydarian, of the Mindsight Institute, in California, have identified four factors: novelty, focus of attention, aerobic exercise, and emotional arousal, that enhance synaptic change within the brain – as occurs when learning takes place.

Nadia Webb, neuropsychologist and Professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology maintains that neural speed, including cognitive processing, reflex and movement speeds, are differentiating characteristics of high intellectual ability. Speed of learning, together with duration of practice, leads to mastery, expertise and automaticity.  Rapid learning of academic content and skills provides time that can be used to slowly pursue certain topics of interest, in much greater depth.  A faster pace of learning allows time for deeper exploration.

Despite this capacity for faster learning, the tendency for high-ability students to overthink can significantly slow down cognitive processing speed.  This can become problematic during time-limited tasks, such as exams and convergent tasks, such as multiple-choice tests, unless strategies are utilised to off-set these risks. Students, who are aware of their tendency to overthink, can guard against this possibility.  Implementing time-management skills within timed exams is essential if students are to complete exams, demonstrate learning and maximise academic performance.  Knowledgeable students who think deeply can easily generate more options than are provided in multiple-choice questions. By understanding the process of elimination that must take place in order to select a single response from the available options, students can guard against overthinking and avoid creating additional alternatives to consider.

Information is quickly placed in short-term or working memory, ready to be used immediately; however it takes longer for the brain to select information that will more slowly be stored as long-term memories.  During sleep, the brain gradually sorts through information obtained during the day, discards what is not required and processes other information as long-term memories.

The brain is well-structured to manage a varied pace of learning and memory storage, allowing fast, efficient cognitive processes (such as learning) to provide time that can be used for slower, more reflective thought processes.  Incubation, the time needed for the slow processes of creative thought and problem-solving to take place, can be most effective when varied cognitive pace has already enabled rapid learning and knowledge acquisition to take place and expertise to be developed.

© Michele Juratowitch