Learning Efficiency: Identifying Individual Differences in Learning Rate and Retention in Healthy Adults

Christopher L. Zerr, Jeffrey J. Berg, Steven M. Nelson, Andrew K. Fishell, Neil K. Savalia, Kathleen B. McDermott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


People differ in how quickly they learn information and how long they remember it, yet individual differences in learning abilities within healthy adults have been relatively neglected. In two studies, we examined the relation between learning rate and subsequent retention using a new foreign-language paired-associates task (the learning-efficiency task), which was designed to eliminate ceiling effects that often accompany standardized tests of learning and memory in healthy adults. A key finding was that quicker learners were also more durable learners (i.e., exhibited better retention across a delay), despite studying the material for less time. Additionally, measures of learning and memory from this task were reliable in Study 1 (N = 281) across 30 hr and Study 2 (N = 92; follow-up n = 46) across 3 years. We conclude that people vary in how efficiently they learn, and we describe a reliable and valid method for assessing learning efficiency within healthy adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1436-1450
Number of pages15
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded in part by grants from the McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Dart NeuroScience.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018.


  • individual differences
  • learning efficiency
  • learning rate
  • memory
  • open data
  • open materials


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