Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Learning Curve

The learning curve is a bit of a cliché, frequently used and misused. People talk about any new learning experience, especially a challenging one, as a learning curve, which is fair enough up to a point. So what’s it really about?

The learning curve is an S curve. You could think of it as a journey, where you’re travelling along, steadily, on a straight road; then the road turns uphill and the journey becomes harder work; before it levels off again at the top of the hill, and you find yourself making steady progress again, but at a higher level.

Without wishing to labour the metaphor, if you apply it to a work situation, you may be working away steadily until you encounter something new, whereupon you struggle a bit until you learn how to tackle this new development, and then you continue to work away, but now perhaps more productively, or to a higher standard, as a result of the learning.

But this is an example of the classic misuse, which is to talk about a steep or sharp learning curve when what is meant is that the learning is difficult; the metaphor of the uphill journey encourages this misunderstanding. In fact, if the curve is steep, this means the learning is quick and easy; a slow ascent of a more gentle curve would indicate a more challenging learning experience.

Perhaps we should conceive a new metaphor, but the best I can suggest is to reverse the gravity, so that the steep curve goes downwards like a slide, working in the learner’s favour. I’m sure there must be a better way of representing the curve to correct the misuse and render its undoubted relevance greater clarity. Any suggestions?


jmguil said...

The learning curve is essentially an image representing the anticipated level of difficulty associated with learning something new. The specific level of difficulty and effort involved, however, depends on the individual doing the learning, the situation, the content and a multiple other factors. It may therefore not be possible to create a single curve representing the concept well. In some cases, for example, the curve may be a much smoother line showing gradual increases and decreases in anticipated difficulty and effort. In other cases, it may involve more than one "S" curve (e.g. completing learning in steps). There also seems to be a tail missing to this "S" curve to show how learning often continues well beyond working throught the tough spots (the top of the curve). Adding a tail could also help illustrate the time element, i.e. a curve illustrating difficulty x effort, x time since time can directly impact difficulty and effort (e.g. learning at a one's pace may help flatten the curve).

Could be interesting to create a more dynamic representation of the curve as a graphic that changes depending on the value of input representing key factors.

Cheers, J-M.

戀人 said...
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