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September 24, 2013

Individual Differences in Learning

by Angel Pumila



     Report cards are the leading indicators that children learn in different ways and at different levels. Some children have better memories than others, some are simply smarter than others, and some have to make no effort at all to earn good grades in school. Some children have to study for hours to learn the same information that other children get right away. There are many factors that influence a child’s ability to learn and retain information. Genetics, study habits, handicaps and motivation are just a few of the factors that influence the way in which children learn.

I became interested in how children learn when I became pregnant with my first child. I realized that it is important to understand the differences that guide learning in each individual to ensure that opportunities to maximize learning are accomplished. Studying these differences in learning has helped me to understand a variety of obstacles that may arise through the course of my child’s education and will enable me to help her overcome any learning difficulties she may have.

For this topic, I researched studies in psychology that focus on individual differences and teaching styles. Some researchers agree that study methods, learning tools and memory exercises can help children who struggle with learning and retaining information, while others suggest that personality and intellectual abilities are the main predictors of how well children learn. Still others argue that genetics are the leading predictor of academic success.

Here, I will argue that all of the aforementioned factors, in addition to a few others, contribute to a child’s ability to learn and achieve throughout his/her life. There is no single indicator that can predict learning patterns; rather, there are so many factors that contribute, including genetics, memorization abilities, retention, economic status, personality, ethnicity, motivation study methods, learning tools and access to highly qualified teachers. Yes, each child does learn differently, but some children have advantages with regard to learning because of individual differences that have nothing to do with intelligence.

Problem Statement and Research Question

     So many children in the United States and in other countries around the world have trouble keeping up with their peers in terms of learning. How do individual differences affect learning capability?

Significance of Research Question

     It is important to understand how individual differences affect learning capabilities so that we can best help children maximize their potentials. Because children learn at different rates and levels, parents and teachers must recognize each child’s individual ability so that a plan can be made that will help the child succeed and achieve.

Report of Research Findings

     A single influence with regard to learning abilities can not be identified. Every child’s level of learning is influenced by a wide variety of factors. According to the Journal of Psychology and Education, “Research has shown that both genes and environment influence intelligence” (Grigorenko, 2011). Each child’s ability to succeed is relative to the intelligence of his/her parentage and to environmental conditions. For example, a child who lives in poverty and whose mother or father is a drug addict is not likely to receive the same educational opportunities as a child who is raised in a wealthy family by two parents who do not do drugs. Therefore, this child’s ability to learn has been stunted by environmental influences beyond the child’s control. Even if this child has good intellectual genes, he/she may never reach his/her full potential. Conversely, a child with poor intellectual genetics may achieve more when the environment in which he/she lives is conducive to pursuing the best educational opportunities.

Researchers also indicate that personality traits influence learning in children. Children with negative personality traits, such as introversion, pessimism and rebelliousness, will not learn on the same pace as children with more positive personality traits. “For the Big Five personality factors (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience), a consistent, positive association for conscientiousness with academic success was found” (Busato, B., 2000) Through the course of Busato’s research, numerous children with similar personality traits were tested. The results were then compared to their grades and academic achievement. The results overwhelmingly suggest that personality does play a significant role in a child’s ability to digest information.

However, each child, even those with similar personalities, will learn differently. “Student learning may be conceived in terms of the three stages of in-put, process and output. Input variables would include curriculum content and other features in the teaching context; process variables the ways a particular student has of going about selecting and learning from the input; and output variables the quality and quantity of subsequent performance” (Biggs, J., 1979). It is important for teachers and parents to correctly understand the stages through which a child learns in order to effectively teach the child and to maximize his/her learning potential. Whereas, one child can pay attention in class for a long period of time, another child’s attention span may not be as long. The same information will be heard and retained in different degrees by each child, and it is important for teachers to pay attention to each child to determine how much information is being received by each child. Through careful observation, teachers can make lesson plans and lectures that are tailored to helping each child learn at his/her own pace.

Even though other factors do influence learning ability, genetics cannot be overlooked. A classic example of how genetics influences learning came through Tryon’s experiment in which rats were bred for maze learning. Tryon bred 18 generations and categorized them as Maze Bright or Maze Dull rats. In this experiment, rats were raised in the same environmental conditions such that environment could not be blamed for deviations. “The bright and dull rats differed in several ways; in their levels of emotionality, size and health, and reactions to different types of mazes. However, improved research designs that control for these factors now routinely show that rats, mice, and fruit flies can be bred for differences in specific learning ability” (Terry, W. S., 2009).

Assessing how humans learn differently is a little more difficult. Numerous studies have been conducted from prenatal learning to how the elderly retain information, from classical conditioning to encoding differences, yet while there are similarities between similar age groups, each individual still takes information in at different levels and in different ways.

Children with learning disabilities have more difficulty than children of normal intellect processing information. They use less mnemonic devises than other children and do not organize things effectively. They cannot put as much information into long-term memory, nor can they retrieve information as easily as other children. These problems are caused by “genetic disorders and birth defects, head injury, anoxia, malnutrition and exposure of toxic materials” (Terry, W. S., 2009).  While some of these causes cannot be avoided, malnutrition is an environmental influence caused by impoverished or uncaring parents who are directly affecting their child’s ability to learn.

Anxiety is another factor that contributes to learning. There is much debate concerning whether testing is an effective gauge of a child’s intelligence because many children (and adults) become so anxious prior to or during a test that they become flustered and cannot remember answers they knew before actually taking the test. This can become quite a problem for many children who make low grades due to test anxiety and can affect their confidence in their ability to keep up with their peer groups. Teachers can help with this problem by recognizing which students have test anxiety and working with the child to find a solution that will measure the child’s abilities without causing undue stress. “Task, evaluation and recognition, and authority dimensions of classrooms are presented as examples of structures that can influence children’s orientation toward different achievement goals” (Ames, C., 1992). When a teacher takes the time to structure a classroom in such a way that all children can benefit from the learning environment, then each individual child has a better chance of achieving at their highest potential.

Location and socioeconomic status also play a major role in enabling children to learn. For example, children who live in remote villages in Ethiopia, where the only really important thing is survival and having a next meal, do not have the same ability to learn as do children who live wealthy suburban lives in New Orleans, where private schools paid for by rich parents, offer the elite the best in education and every opportunity to succeed in life. These children in the remote village may be capable of learning just as much as other children, but their environment and a lack of nutrition limits their ability to learn. While some countries throughout the world place a high value on education, others do not, and children do not ever reach their full potential.

Finally, there have been many discussions about gender as it relates to learning. Stereotypical responses to that question has always been that males and females are split along the math/English line, where males are better at math (left-brained) and women are better at English (right-brained). However, this stereotype is just that, as many women are high math achievers, and many men are good with English. While women are considered to have better verbal memory, there is no real evidence that gender influences ability to learn.


     By understanding learning disabilities and knowing what makes learning easier for some children more than others will help professionals treat each child knowledgeably and correctly. It’s simple to group children together without taking the time to delve into their personalities and environments to ascertain how they learn or why they do not learn on the same level as other children. This knowledge can also help educators to advise parents in the best course of action and to help them understand the learning abilities of their children. For example, the father who demands straight A’s from a child who is not capable of making A’s can seriously harm that child’s self-esteem by setting standards that cannot be met no matter how hard the child tries. On the other hand, a parent can also get the upper hand with the child who performs poorly but who is capable of making better grades and is simply lazy, through understand the child’s personality traits that are contributing to poor achievement.

Identifying individual differences in learning can also help professionals to ask the right questions and not simply accept what is on the surface. There are reasons why each child learns at a different pace, and those reasons must be understood if that child is to have a chance of performing at his/her potential. Once understanding of each individual is achieved, a solution can then be found that will enable the child to make the most of what learning tools are available.


     Many times, a child’s self-esteem is wrapped around his/her sense of achievement, of how he/she measures up to his/her peers. Because each child learns at a different pace, it is impossible for many children to feel like they are as smart as those children who rolls answers off their tongues without thinking and always ace their tests. So many children feel like they are dumb when they simply have different genetics and environments that influence their ability to learn. I have not discussed the role Attention Deficit Disorder here, but it is mentioned now because it, too, is an important factor when it comes to learning for many children. Those with ADD or ADHD cannot learn information at the same rate as children who do not have this disorder because they simply don’t have the same attention span. Children with ADD often feel they are not as smart as other children, but when diagnosed and placed on the proper treatment plan, these children are often capable of achieving just as much as their peers.

Other children with home lives that are not conducive to learning, suffer at the hands of parents who do not keep education as their focus. These children also have self-esteem issues because not only can they not keep up with the rest of the children, but they have to hide the problems they are having at home so they can appear normal to other children.

Another problem is that overcrowded classrooms contribute to a lack of focus on the individual child and his/her capabilities. When teachers are overwhelmed with too many children, they can only meet the needs of a few. Oftentimes, children pay a heavy price because they cannot get the individual attention they need.

So many factors contribute to the way in which each child learns, but there are few viable solutions to the problem for the majority of children. Those families who cannot afford to place their children in private or specialty schools must simply accept the education that they are given and accept that their children may never reach their fullest potential.

However, much of a child’s potential rests in his/her individual personality and correlates directly with factors such as attitude and motivation. Children who really want to learn usually find a way, while those who don’t care about learning simply don’t learn. In my opinion, the children who really want to learn but can’t ever seem to catch up are the most at-risk children. These are the kids who get lost in the crowd because they cannot get the individual attention that they desperately need to learn. These kids have the desire and motivation, but no one has ever diagnosed their problems or identified their learning.  Consequently, solutions are simply not found to help them discover their potential.

My recommendation is that we re-educate the educators and parents. Teach them to look for the different learning patterns of their children. Teach them to recognize when problems may exist and give them tools to rectify the problems. Help them understand all of the factors that contribute to the way a child learns, and teach them to deal with each child on an individual level. Supply them with knowledge of the tools that will help each child to learn better. Then take the time to help the child as much as possible. Every child deserves the best chance in life, and understanding why a child learns the way he/she does will help give each child that chance.

Understanding the way children learn can go a long way to helping them become the best they can be. However, there are so many factors involved with the way children learn that it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly why a child learns the way he/she does. Personality traits, learning disabilities, genetics, environment, and gender—it all plays a role in making up the individual. Intelligence level and IQ does not mean that a child has the same ability to learn as other children. Children can only reach their fullest potential when those who teach them understand how they learn and all of the tools available are used to enhance the learning experience.


Ames, C., (1992) Journal of Educational Psychology: Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. American Psychological Association.

Biggs, J., (1979). Higher Education: Individual differences in study processes and the Quality of Learning Outcomes. Springer Netherlands.

Busato, B., (2000). Personality and Individual Differences: Intellectual ability, learning style, personality, achievement motivation and academic success of psychology students in higher education. Elsevier Science Ltd.

Grigorenko, E., (2011). Journal of Psychology and Education: Learning and Individual Differences. Elsevier Inc.

Terry, W. S., (2009). Learning and Memory (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education Inc.


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