Faster learners transfer their knowledge better: Behavioral, mnemonic, and neural mechanisms of individual differences in children's learning


Why some children learn, and transfer their knowledge to novel problems, better than others remains an important unresolved question in the science of learning. Here we developed an innovative tutoring program and data analysis approach to investigate individual differences in neurocognitive mechanisms that support math learning and “near” transfer to novel, but structurally related, problems in elementary school children. Following just five days of training, children performed recently trained math problems more efficiently, with greater use of memory-retrieval-based strategies. Crucially, children who learned faster during training performed better not only on trained problems but also on novel problems, and better discriminated trained and novel problems in a subsequent recognition memory task. Faster learners exhibited increased similarity of neural representations between trained and novel problems, and greater differentiation of functional brain circuits engaged by trained and novel problems. These results suggest that learning and near transfer are characterized by parallel learning-rate dependent local integration and large-scale segregation of functional brain circuits. Our findings demonstrate that speed of learning and near transfer are interrelated and identify the neural mechanisms by which faster learners transfer their knowledge better. Our study provides new insights into the behavioral, mnemonic, and neural mechanisms underlying children’s learning.

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience