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One Size Does Not Fit All: The Need for Variety in Learning

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By Jonathan Wai

When you want to improve your physical health, you don’t have to eat one specific type of food or exercise in a specific way. Rather, you need an appropriate mix of healthy foods and exercise -- no one thing is required. Different types of exercise and foods are in some sense interchangeable. What matters is that you get the appropriate dose.

Could this common idea from health translate into the world of education?

Consider the cases of two hypothetical students, Suzie and Greg. Suzie goes to a summer science camp every year, she gets lost in Wikipedia for hours after school, competes in chess tournaments, and overall is engaged at school. Greg enjoys being home-schooled, regularly uses Khan Academy, walks to the library to read books, and recently joined a club that builds remote control helicopters. Although involved in very different activities, they are both intellectually stimulated, and that is the key. They each have an appropriate educational dose.

In a research collaboration with David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and James Steiger, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, we conceptualized education as a dose concept. Each different type of pre-college educational opportunity was summed to determine the dose level. For example, Suzie and Greg are both involved in four learning opportunities, so they each have a dose level of four. Our study focused on STEM learning opportunities and outcomes. From a sample of 1,467 academically advanced students, we formed two groups: those with a relatively higher educational dose and those with a relatively lower educational dose. We then compared these two groups on their STEM outcomes 25 years later — PhDs, publications, university tenure, patents, and occupations. The higher dose group was significantly more likely to earn each of these outcomes than the lower dose group. First, this study suggests a higher educational dose may be beneficial for real-world achievements. Second, it may not be any one educational intervention, but an appropriate dose of different educational experiences that matter.


Although this research was on academically advanced students, the concept of educational dose could be applied to all students, because one size does not fit all—each person needs to be educated at the level and in a way that is tailored for them. Students need different kinds of stimulation, and they should seek opportunities they're interested in because no one thing is going to be the winning formula for everyone. These opportunities can be both inside and outside of school and on and off-line.

Of course, some educational opportunities are certainly more effective than others. But this shows educational opportunities are, to some extent, interchangeable. This idea should free up parents from worrying that their kids must have one specific type of educational opportunity because each student has varied opportunities to learn and grow. What matters is each student takes advantage of whatever opportunities that surround them to stay consistently engaged.

Clearly, low-income or rural students will not have as many options as students in higher-income communities with larger populations. Access to their devices in school may help bridge this divide. What matters is whether students have a say in what personally motivates them, as well as guidance from parents and teachers to leverage those interests into learning opportunities. There are almost infinite numbers of free online education opportunities, from MOOCs to sites like for advanced students. Just check out these lists of open education sites.

But just access to computers and the internet might not be enough. As the New York Times editorial board recently pointed out, public national funding for academically advanced students is currently zero, so talented students from low-income backgrounds who don’t have parents who can provide challenging learning opportunities outside of school often lose out because they're not appropriately challenged.

However, based on a new research study, Deborah Lowe Vandell argues that consistent after school stimulation—day in and day out—can be especially beneficial for low-income students. Ultimately, we need to do everything we can to ensure unique individuals from every level and background have the chance to be stimulated each day.

If you consider that what matters is for each student to get a consistent and sufficient educational dose across a long span of time, this essentially composes what we might consider as life-long learning. And in that sense, perhaps this concept is helpful not only for students, but all of us.

Jonathan Wai is a researcher at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and Case Western Reserve University and writes “Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative” for Psychology Today.

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