Learning Curve

The learning curve is the timeline during which learning takes place or the rate at which an individual learns new skills or gains experience.

A learning curve can apply to an individual's rate of learning a specific subject or skill or to the time it takes for anyone to learn a skill set or to gain experience or knowledge in a specific subject area. When a person is introduced to new information or a new skill, it may take several learning sessions to acquire that knowledge or skill. Psychologists refer to this acquisition process as the learning curve, referring to the time it takes an individual to develop knowledge or master a new skill. Tasks that take a long time to learn may be said to have a steep learning curve. Although this is sometimes interpreted to mean a difficult initial learning process, psychologists may also interpret it as a quick increment of skill level or making good progress at the outset of developing a new skill.

Learning curves are used in education and in the workplace to evaluate individual progress in specific areas of knowledge or skill acquisition. They are also used frequently in economics to evaluate associations between cost and experience or to determine, for example, how many hours might be required within a specific industry to achieve a certain production goal.

The learning psychologist Hermann Ebbinghause (1850–1909) first used the term learning curve in 1885, but it did not become more commonly used until the early 1900s when it was applied in industry to evaluate the effects of learning rates on the costs of production. Behavioral psychologists have noted that the degree, or strength, of learning reflects three factors. First, the degree of learning is associated with the number of reinforcements received during the acquisition of the particular behavior. In animal research, these reinforcements may be food pellets; in human research, the reinforcement may simply be knowledge about the number of correct and incorrect answers. In general, as the reinforcement increases, so does the performance level.

Second, a maximal level of performance is commonly associated with learning any skill set or behavior. This maximum is called the asymptote, and once this level of learning is reached, no further improvement in performance is expected.

Third, the greatest increase in the acquisition of the skill set or behavior will occur in the initial phases of learning. As the performance of the behavior approaches the asymptote, there is increasingly less room for further improvement.

KEY TERMS

Asymptote—
A line in a mathematical curve that continually approaches a given curve but never meets it.
Experience curve—
Used interchangeably with learning curve but emphasizing experience gained rather than knowledge acquired.
Mathematical modeling—
In learning, a way to describe a system or process using mathematical concepts and language.
Negative acceleration—
In learning psychology, movement in the opposite direction from that intended, that is, slowing down.
Positive acceleration—
In learning psychology, movement or velocity of a moving body in the intended direction or an increase in speed.

Psychologists also use various terms associated with learning curves, including negative acceleration or not moving forward quickly enough; positive acceleration or moving forward at an expected rate; and plateaus, periods in the learning curve where the task is learned, but little progress is being made toward actually mastering the skills required. If no further improvement is made, asymptote for a given individual has been reached.

Mathematical modeling is often applied to demonstrate learning curves for a specific skill set or mastery of a body of knowledge. The graph of the model will be a plot of the increase of learning over time and with experience. Psychologists often use graphs to depict an individual's progress or, in research, the mean progress of a group of individuals. The amount of practice in performing a task appears as the horizontal axis; the strength or accuracy of a response is recorded on the vertical axis. For a single individual, a graph can be erratic and show different levels of proficiency over time, including increases, decreases, or a leveling off at times. The tendency is for an individual to improve over time or with practice, although an improvement may be temporarily followed by a decline in performance (negative acceleration).

See also Learning .

Resources

BOOKS

Goldstein, E. Bruce. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011.

PERIODICALS

Malyusz, L., and A. Pem. “Predicting Future Performance by Learning Curves.” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 119 (March 2014): 368–76.

WEBSITES

Introductory Psychology. “The Learning Curve.” http://www.intropsych.com/ch07_cornition/learning_curve.html (accessed August 17, 2015).