Learning Curve

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Learning curve

The timeline of learning.

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. In general, this term refers to the time it takes an individual to develop knowledge or a new skill.

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 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, there is a maximal level of performance associated with any behavior. This maximum is called the asymptote. Once this asymptote is reached, no further improvement in performance is possible.

Third, the greatest increase in the acquisition of the 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.

Psychologists often use graphs to depict learning curves. The amount of practice at a task appears on the horizontal axis; the strength or accuracy of a response is recorded on the vertical axis. For a single individual, the tendency is to improve over time or practice, although an improvement may be temporarily followed by a decline in performance.

When a large number of individuals are tested and their average performance plotted, the learning curve gives the appearance of a gradual, smooth improvement over time. In the hypothetical learning curve in the accompanying graph, phase one reflects a period of familiarization with the task in which little learning takes place. In the second phase, there is a great deal of learning over a short period of time. In the final phase, the degree of learning is approaching asymptote, that is, the maximum. Any further change in performance will be minimal.

Further Reading

Teplitz, Charles J. The Learning Curve Deskbook: A Reference Guide to Theory, Calculations, and Applications. New York: Quorum Books, 1991.

learning curve

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learn·ing curve • n. the rate of a person's progress in gaining experience or new skills: the latest software packages have a steep learning curve.