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What is a Learning Curve?

Jessica Ellis
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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A learning curve is a concept used to measure how quickly a skill can be mastered. Usually shown as a simple graph, it often depicts the combination of the time it takes to learn a new idea or skill set, combined with the rate at which mastery is achieved. Learning curves are often used to measure an individual’s progress against an average.

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus coined the term during his research on memory and memorization in the late 19th century. In his 1885 work, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, Ebbinghaus described his findings regarding both the learning curve, or rate at which knowledge is gained, and the forgetting curve, a related graph that measures how quickly memorized information is lost. His book is considered a groundbreaking work in the field, and quickly led to the popularity of using these curves as a means of measuring progress.

The concept is somewhat confusing in terminology, even to experts. For instance, a steep curve implies two very different graphs. Some believe that it means there is a large gain of knowledge in the early stages, displayed on the usual graph as a steep incline at the beginning that gradually tapers out. Chess, for instance, might be considered a game with a steep curve, for while the rules are simple and quickly learned, mastery over the game may take years. The term is also sometimes used to describe a particularly difficult or arduous skill to learn, as steep slopes are presumably harder to climb.

Flat or gradual learning curves are more generally understood as a concept. On a flat curve, the rate of knowledge gained is slowly spaced out over time, so the rate is generally the same. Subjects take a long time to gain complete mastery over, but provide ample time to truly imprint the procedures or skill components on the brain. They are often very difficult to learn, as they do not provide the rewards of quick, usable knowledge.

People should remember that these graphs are representational of an average rate of knowledge gained over time. As different people have different backgrounds or aptitudes, some may learn considerably faster or slower than others. A consistent failure to meet goals or checkpoints established by learning curves may indicate a problem, however, such as a learning disability or simply misunderstanding the fundamentals of a subject. In this case, remedial tutoring in the subject may be worth trying to correct the issue. If tutoring fails to help improve a student's rate of learning, he or she may want to be tested for learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, which may be impeding the individual's ability to keep up with the curve.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By watson42 — On Apr 20, 2011

When I teach, I try to avoid grading every little thing my students do, because I'm aware that they really are not all on the same learning curve. I teach English at a private school where there is not much room or help for kids with learning disabilities, and few of my students seem to have them. However, even without disabilities, I have students who struggle with vocabulary and others who struggle with remembering readings, and I have to find a balance in order to cater to all their different strengths.

By afterall — On Apr 19, 2011

@donna61, I think that many teachers do not understand your point. I struggle often with trying to visualize math problems. I grew to hate math in school, because often asking a teacher to help me would lead to him or her simply stating the same explanation again, perhaps slower, as though I had some sort of hearing problem or language barrier, when my trouble was with the math.

By donna61 — On Feb 23, 2011

I don't like learning curves when used in the classroom. They assume that all children learn the same way. It is one thing to say some learn at different rates, but some learn in different ways than the traditional school of memorization.

This does not mean that they have a learning disability, perhaps just another learning style.

I wonder if there is a characteristic of the learning curve equation that we are missing or that can be added to get a fair evaluation when it seems to be off consistently?

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

Writer

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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