What do professors think of slow learners in the classroom?
When I was five years old, I played the role of the turtle in a play organized by my older sister. I had one line at the end, when I beat the sleeping rabbit to the finish line: slow and steady wins the race.
I’ve always felt that those words guided my career. I was never the fastest; I was rarely an A student.
But as the careers of others stalled, I kept going.
My goal was always the same: to learn more this year than I had last year.
When I see slow students, that’s what I think of.
Are those the students who will keep learning over their entire lifetime, and leave the “quick” students far behind?
Some people have difficulty with particular topics. They may also have a slow deliberate style.
I don’t have a problem with them either, so long as they are trying.
I usually have them come in to see me during office hours, and/or spend time with a TA (if there is one) if they need the extra help.
The goal of education is not to gain as much knowledge as quickly as possibly, but to gain useful knowledge and retain it.
As such, I would prefer a slow, thoughtful student to a fast, superficial one.
Technically, I’m not a professor yet, but I have taught middle and high school students, and I’m currently teaching undergraduate machine learning.
As a teacher, I don’t care how “fast” someone learns something.
There may be a lot of reasons someone picks up a particular subject or topic more quickly: more background, natural adeptness, previous exposure to the material, more sleep that night, less stress, and so on.
We process information differently.
To use myself as an example, I tended to be comparatively slow in my advanced undergraduate mathematics classes.
In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that one of the ways I learn is “error-based.” That is, I effectively learn by making mistakes.
This may be slower than other methods of learning, but when I learn something, I really learn it.
Personally, I think that this method of learning is well-suited for research. Now, this is quite different from someone who is simply unprepared for a course.
I seldom worried about “slow learners” when teaching residents or even medical students. I knew these young men and women could learn.
There is a lot of material to master in medicine, but there is also time. That is what training programs are about.
Like in so many other professions, knowledge is only a part of being a doctor.
I spent decades learning enough to be a doctor and decades more keeping up and improving.
It never stops, and never should.
Slow learners need a study plan, and time, and good classes, and periodic assessment.
Now the world is competitive and sometimes being too slow means you miss out.
But speed is seldom the biggest marker of success. Learning, like a career, or like life, is a marathon, not a sprint.