Learning Curve: It isn’t What You Think it is

How many times have you heard the phrase “it has a steep learning curve” in reference to something that is supposed to be difficult? This commonly-used phrase sounds good, but isn’t really logical. Because it’s wrong.

A “learning curve” is a visual device used to illustrate the average rate of learning for a skill or tool. Essentially, it is a line chart that shows the learner’s level of proficiency and how it changes over time.

Take a look at the two following charts. The first one illustrates a steep learning curve, while the second shows a more gradual slope. If you take a look at the labels on the axes, you’ll note that the steep curve shows the “knowledge” unit is increasing at a faster rate. That means something with a steep learning curve is easier than something with a gradual slope. Make sense?

I know I’ve been guilty of misusing this term in the past, but have been making an effort to avoid it more recently. It’s a good thing to word around when you’re writing, as using it in the correct context is likely to do nothing but cause confusion at this point. (At least, for general audiences. Depending on your niche, your readers might understand.)

  • Vince Harzewski

    If you exchange the x and y axis labels, then the opposite applies (steep curve = difficult.)

    • http://www.webmaster-source.com Matt

      I guess that’s true. It’s not the typical setup, though. X for time, Y for growth seems to be the most common way to go for line graphs.

  • Monte Merrick

    when i say something has a steep learning curve, I mean i have to learn a lot very fast, whihc is much more difficult than learning a little bit at a time over time… violin, although very difficult doesn’t have as steep a learning curve, in fact I may never learn it, while managing an oiled bird wash facility is very difficult but you learn it fast or fail immediately.