Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Learning curves

If I hear another person say that they have been on a steep learning curve I shall explode! Here is another example (see previous post) of a phrase from a field of knowledge being taken up by those who do not understand it, and then misused – and, of course, over-used! So people tell me they've started a new job and they've been on a learning curve, when all they mean is they have been learning.

'Learning curve' is a term from the field of the psychology of learning. It refers to a graphical representation of the progress of an individual's learning over time. So, if you are learning some new skill your progress in learning can be represented by a graph, with one axis the cumulative learning achieved (going from 0% to 100%) and the other axis the time devoted to learning.

So 'being on a learning curve' really does not mean anything other than 'learning'! So, why not just say 'I have been learning'!!? Being on a learning curve does not mean that the learning has been especially difficult, demanding, rapid or slow! Anyone who is learning anything can have their progress in learning modelled by a learning curve! Here's an example.

The learning curve simply attempts to model the progress of the learning. In this case, initially the learning curve is shallow. This is because to start with the learner makes slow progress, probably because learning is difficult. Then the rate of learning picks up, as learning gets easier. Then it gets shallow again, as towards the end of the process there is not much more to learn and a lot of time is given to consolidating what has been learnt already.

Here's another example: to start with this learner is on a 'steep (part of a) learning curve'!

Initially this learning task is found to be easy. Learning is rapid, and the learner makes quick progress. Again there is a tailing off in the rate of learning towards the end, as in the previous example.

So, the learner in the initial stages here might well say (correctly) 'I have been on a steep part of a learning curve'. But in saying this they would mean that the learning has been really easy! But people talk about 'steep learning curves' as though the steeper it is the more challenging has been the learning!

So, listen up!
1. Please don't say 'I've been on a learning curve' when you just mean 'I have been learning'!
2. Don't say 'I have been on a steep learning curve'. No learning curve in practice is 'steep' in every part.
3. You may say 'I have been on a steep part of a learning curve'. But be aware that this probably means the learning has been really easy for you!
4. If you want to imply that the learning has been difficult for you, say 'I have been on a really shallow part of a learning curve'!

Better still, just forget all about learning curves. Just talk about learning.

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