Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Conquering the Learning Curve

You know you've heard it—whenever you're asked to master a challenging new technology or technique, some Joe will blurt it out without restraint—"It has a learning curve," or, "Once you get past the learning curve, it's all gravy."

Let me not digress on how much distaste I feel for the use of the word "gravy" to denote a pleasant experience, since I can think of few things that could be less pleasant than a soup of liquefied lard mixed with meat juices. But I'm not going to digress about that.

In my four years as an education major, I never once was introduced to the phrase "learning curve," and since something about its usage struck me as dubious, I took it upon myself to find out what, exactly, it means.

I imagined, based on context, that the learning curve was some sort of hump one hapless learner would be obliged to scale in order to master a subject. Wikipedia set me straight—and I shall not digress on the ironies of using "set me straight" to describe my education on a matter inherently curved.

A learning curve is not, actually, a metaphor for the various difficulties one passes over whilst learning, but in fact, "a graphical representation of the changing rate of learning (in the average person) for a given activity or tool."

Rather than describing a mountainous shape, a learning curve more frequently follows the much less picturesque pattern of a mathematical function with a horizontal asymptote.

Observe. If you plot Time (or, to be more precise, Number of Attempts at Learning) on the X axis and Material Learned on the Y axis, you will frequently see an S-curve representing a slow start as the learner struggles to grasp completely foreign material, followed by a steeper upturn as they "get it" and begin absorbing knowledge like a sponge, and culminating in a slow tapering off of learning as the amount of learnable material available decreases.

<-- Sometimes you get a graph shaped like this—more like that mountain you had in your head originally. This happens when a subject is simple and easy to learn.

So, when someone describes something as having a "steep learning curve," they may think they are saying that it's difficult to learn, but from a purist's standpoint, they are actually saying it's quite easy!

That's all Li'l Language Lady has to say for now. Hope you learned something today!


Anonymous said...

I have always pictured "a steep learning curve" as representing a topic that is difficult to learn as in the hill of learning is at an angle that takes great effort to climb. Possibly that was never the actual meaning but that S curve never seemed to be what was meant. Your image of the clouds, which obscure the path ahead from the lower levels fits the image in my mind. Then again, the images in my mind can be a bit scary...