Skip to content

9 Ways to Design for Learning at Different Speeds

We’re different. We each learn at a different pace. Remember learning spelling words in grade school?

  • Some kids mastered all the words on Monday (the first day).
  • Most of the kids could spell most of them by the test on Friday.
  • A few couldn’t get half of them in a week.

12-13 Diverse Leaves

You can hardly blame the Monday kids for thinking that school is pretty stupid or the struggling kids for thinking that it is too hard. Most kids struggle in some things and excel in others. And then there are a few who breeze through everything.

This doesn’t stop. High school. University. Faculty. Government, military, healthcare, for profit, nonprofit. We learn different things at different speeds. This is caused by, among other things:

  • Mental Horsepower. Some people can just get there faster than others.
  • Talents. Some people find it easier to learn certain things.
  • Motivation. I think I can; I value this; I’m curious; I’m distracted (or not). Level of persistence. Work ethic.
  • Prior Experience. Parents. Other classes. Hobbies. Reading. Other roles, jobs, organizations.
  • Learning Strategies. Monitoring, tracking learning. Study skills and habits.
  • Abilities. For example, being able to see letters in the same order that they actually appear on a page, or being able to focus long enough to learn.
  • Health. Exercise, sleep, diet. Physical, mental comfort (or not).

What to Do

Depending on your delivery system, here are some ways to make it less awkward for people who have different learning requirements or who learn at different speeds.

  1. Learning Roadmaps. Provide a list or graphic representation of the main topics for a course, job, or job family. Include prerequisites, required topics, in-depth topics, and electives, if appropriate. Google “learning roadmaps” images for some great ideas.
  2. Prework. For learners who need to catch up or who need more support, provide learning opportunities outside the time that your class is together. (This might include flipping the classroom.)
  3. Modular Approach. Break the program into smaller pieces. Create opportunities for learners to master each module, for example, completing a set of study questions, a paper & pencil test, a portfolio of work, or a successful return demonstration.
  4. Self-Study Modules. If you want your learners to study on their own, make sure they have time set aside as well as the right environment. Write clear instructions. Make someone available, if possible, to answer questions. If you use a “content pack” format online, create a standard landing page with instructions, objectives, a clear rationale, encouragement, timing, and links.
  5. Scaffolding. Provide additional instruction, job aids, templates, readings, demonstrations, practice opportunities, guidance, branching, learning strategy tips, etc., as needed.
  6. Beginning-Intermediate-Advanced Groups. Segment the audience to better meet them where they are today.
  7. Testing Out. For people with prior knowledge or experience, allow them to show what they know and to skip what they don’t need.
  8. Provide More Learner Control for Advanced and Experienced Learners. For the top 5% of learners who learn the fastest, give them some goals and resources, and then get out of their way. This approach does not work well for novices. For them, provide more structure.
  9. Use Great Presentation Techniques. Try Stretch It questioning. For exercises, mix up pairs or small groups of people by skills and aptitudes—sometimes homogeneously, sometimes not. Don’t let one or two people answer every question. Don’t let people coast. Don’t embarrass anybody. Set up a safe environment for learning. Encourage questions.

No matter the group of learners, they will learn different things at different rates. Some combination of these techniques can provide structure and support for your learners. You may have other techniques, and I’d love to hear about what works for you.


Post | Flip That Classroom

Post | Bookshelf: Teach Like a Champion

Disclosure: Some links on this site are “affiliate links,” which means that I may receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase something.