If You Learn Quickly You Are Smart, If you Learn Slowly You are… | Jon Bergmann | 6 Min Read

December 21, 2022

If you learn quickly, you are smart.  If you learn slowly you are … dumb. This is the message we send to students every day in schools across the globe. I don’t believe that statement is true. Do you?  

Sadly, every time students are only given one chance to take a major test, that notion is reinforced.  Every time students take timed admissions exams or are given one attempt to demonstrate mastery, we reinforce this untrue statement. 

Parisa Rouhani’s 2019 doctoral dissertation at Harvard University studied students in a self-directed mastery course and found that speed of learning is not the key factor in achievement. In her conclusion, she states:

What really mattered for performance in a course was not how much time it took for the student to learn, but rather, how much of the material was mastered, irrespective of time. Students varied in how long they spent learning material and taking assessments, but the variation did not affect performance. Mastery was the variable that mattered. 

Time was not the variable. Mastery was. Or as I read this study, those that learn fast don’t necessarily learn better or deeper. But when students are given enough support, the vast majority are able to master the material. None other than Benjamin Bloom did early work with Mastery Learning, and in one study 80% were able to master the material. When they refined their practices 90% were able to achieve mastery. 

Rouhani’s dissertation challenges some of the fundamental assumptions that we make about learning. I say this as one of the “fast learners.” School came easy to me and when I first started teaching I assumed that all students learned as I did. When I started teaching I quickly realized that students learn at different paces. Sadly, for many years of my teaching career, I reinforced this notion that fast learners are smarter than slower learners. 

But when I and Aaron Sams helped pioneer Flipped Learning, we began to delve into mastery learning and discovered what Rouhani wrote about in 2019. Rouhani takes her statement even further when she states:

This insight [that mastery was the variable that mattered] speaks to the need for an education system that does not assume faster is smarter, and that the goal is to rank and sort students for positions in life and instead sees all students as capable, that is designed to develop students in their learning and help them learn the skill and knowledge necessary to accomplish their goals. 

Dr. Rouhani’s statement validates my findings in my own mastery classes. My students actually learn at varied paces, and when I give them the time to learn at their pace, deeper learning occurred. And this is ultimately an equity issue because it creates a level playing field for students who learn more slowly, but still achieve mastery. If we don’t provide the support and time for students to learn, we are shortchanging our students. Dr. Rouhani continues with a challenge for us to rethink our entire educational system. 

…That, fundamentally, requires a different kind of education system than the traditional, standardized one that has lasted over a century and continues to persist. In order to better understand how to help students, we need to better understand their individuality, and how to design personalized systems that can nurture and develop that.

And what a time we are living in now. With the disruption of COVID to our school systems, we were in desperate need for a more personalized system; an educational system that isn’t a one-size fits all approach, but rather, allows students to work through their course content at a flexible pace.

How to Not Say that slower processing students are dumb

So how do you develop a class where slower-processing students are successful? The answer is Mastery/Competency-Based Learning. I have implemented Mastery Learning in my class for many years, and I get the privilege of seeing it work every day. 

In my classes, I tell my students that “I don’t care when you learn it, only that you have learned it.” I know that many of you might wonder how to make this a reality in a classroom. You might say something like: “I teach six classes a day and I have full classes. How do I personalize for every student? Logistically it seems impossible. But I am here to tell you that it works. I am a full-time teacher with six classes.  I teach a broad cross-section of kids, and it just works. My students master the material—really they do.  

And I am not the only teacher who is using mastery learning to personalize learning. Thousands of teachers across the world are utilizing Mastery/Competency-Based Learning. If you want to learn just “how” to do it (shameless self-plug), pick up a copy of my latest book, “The Mastery Learning Handbook.” The book is a step-by-step guide on how to do this in a classroom. 

And if you are still hesitant, who better to hear from then the students themselves. When writing my book, I polled students across the world in mastery classes and asked for some of their feedback on their experiences. They resoundingly report that they like the system because in a Mastery Learning class they are able to learn at a flexible pace. They also like the fact that they have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their mastery.  Below are a few quotes from students around the world and from my own classes. 

I liked this system. It allowed me to keep track easily of where I was and where I had to be. The flipped mastery checkpoints allowed me to check that I was in the right place and doing everything correctly.

‘I think that it worked really well. I also think that using this format in other classes would make me work/learn better as well!’ 

‘I liked it because I think it allowed more freedom for people to work at their own pace and actually understand the topic before moving on. 

‘The system worked well, it was a good measure of where I was at in terms of progress. It was also useful to have my work checked in the flipped masteries.’ 

I love mastery learning it gives me enough time to be able to learn the whole chapter on my own time and actually understand it. It really helps when I am at home and I don’t have to do the hard concepts by myself. When I get to school, Mr. Bergmann helps at school and then I am able to retake tests until I understand completely, just like Driver’s Ed.

Mastery learning has helped me become more proficient because it forces me to have a deeper understanding of the material. It’s not just surface-level remember and forget types of learning, but through the mastery learning program, I obtain a deeper understanding of topics that stick with me for longer.

Chemistry is my favorite class because of Mastery Learning! It gives me time to work on the important things at home because I often get distracted in the classroom. It also gives me time to ask Mr. Bergmann questions about the lessons. I love that there are three different difficulties of tests in case one of the students is having trouble with parts of the lessons. 

If you also disbelieve the notion that slow learners are dumb, then isn’t it time that our educational system stops communicating that message? And if you are a teacher, isn’t it time that you explored a more personalized way of teaching? Isn’t it time?


Block, James H., et al. “Mastery Learning.” Mastery Learning: Theory and Practice, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1971, pp. 60–61. 

Rouhani, Parisa. 2019. The Role of Time in Self-Directed Personalized Learning Environments: An Exploratory Analysis. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Enjoy 13 additional articles by Jon Bergmann from the Intrepid archives.

Jon Bergmann

Jon Bergmann is one of the pioneers of the Flipped Class Movement. Jon is leading the worldwide adoption of flipped learning by working with governments, schools, corporations, and education non-profits. Jon is coordinating or guiding flipped learning initiatives around the globe including China, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the Middle East, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Canada, South America, and the United States. Jon is the author of 10 books including the bestselling book: Flip Your Classroom which has been translated into 10 languages. He has been an educator since 1986. He has served as a middle and high school science teacher, the lead technology facilitator for a school district in the Chicago suburbs, as well as a consultant/public speaker. He currently is teaching science and leading staff development at Houston Christian High School.

4 thoughts on “If You Learn Quickly You Are Smart, If you Learn Slowly You are… | Jon Bergmann | 6 Min Read

  1. I like this article very much; slow-fast learning is not a measure of intelligence or of deep learning. I do wish we could get rid of the “mastery” nomenclature. The connotation of mastery suggests a final destination, which I know is not the intention, but the notion that mastery of anything can be achieved in school seems counterproductive to another important goal of education: life-long learning. Mastery requires decades of work, and I doubt that even those who are recognized as masters would describe themselves with that word. More likely, they might say that the more they know, the more they know they don’t know.

    Instead of mastery, I tend to prefer the idea of developmental levels of conceptual understanding and skill. For about 20 years now, Lectica has been working on assessments that provide insight into individuals’ conceptual level of understanding and suggestions for steps they can take to move to the next level. There is always a next level—a fact that is not suggested by mastery. I realize that those who like the term will point out that all they mean is that a learner has “mastered” a level of understanding and can now proceed to more complex levels, but the connotations of the word mastery, which might be useful for marketing, remain antithetical to other goals of and attitudes about learning. In my amateurish opinion.

    1. Alden – Even though I am the author of the “Mastery Learning Handbook,”, I have sometimes been a bit uncomfortable with the term. You are correct that mastery can take decades –like Eddie Van Halen or a master craftsman. But you are correct – I am thinking of my students mastering a certain level of understanding given a specific set of criteria. Some have been more comfortable with the term competency-based learning. And I am fine with that – but sometimes I feel that term can sound negative too – i just met some low bar. I want my student to feel like they have mastered something – and they have.

      I actually addressed this in my new book and finally landed on going with mastery learning. FYI – here is the definition of Mastery Learning I crafted for the book – maybe this will assuage your concerns:

      Mastery Learning: An approach to classroom instruction that empowers every student at every level to progress with confidence. The teacher uses flexible pacing to guide students through a cyclic process of preparation, demonstration of knowledge, and feedback until there is a mutual agreement between the teacher and individual student that the student is ready for the next cycle to begin.

  2. Jon, I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I think your definition of “Mastery Learning” is excellent. It’s just the word mastery that I struggle with because of its constant use and connotations, though I also agree with you about the word competency. So much is lost when use shorthand to replace a rich definition like yours, and all we end up doing is creating more education jargon. The definition gets lost in the shorthand.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with Theo Dawson’s work at Lectica, but I think it might interest you.

  3. @alden – I hear your concern and agree to some degree. I did look at Dawson’s work for a bit – intriguing. Maybe we should connect some time and discuss via zoom. Reach out to me on my website http:// jonbergmann.com

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