Browse Definitions:

learning curve

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A learning curve is the representation in graph form of the rate of  learning something over time or repeated experiences.

Learning curves are a visualization of the difficulty estimated in learning a subject over a period of time as well as relative progress throughout the process of learning. The learning curve provides a way to show a subject’s learnability.


learning-curve The typical plotting of a learning curve shows the time (or experience) for learning on the x axis and the percentage of learning on the y axis. In science (and contrary to popular usage of the term) a steep learning curve represents a quickly-learned subject. Difficult subjects will have a longer duration to complete learning and, as such, a shallower curve. The relative percentage of learning can show how some subjects can be mostly learned quickly while some difficult aspects may remain resulting in plateaus in the graph where learning stalls.

Learning curves are used by psychologists, students, teachers, employees and employers to plot progress and set expectations on how much time, training and study might be required to attain competent knowledge of a subject. In IT, learning curves are  considered in user interface and product design.

The learning curve concept was created by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 and introduced in his book Über das Gedächtnis (About Memory). The earliest known use of the English phrase “learning curve” is in Edgar James Swift’s “Studies in the Psychology and Physiology of Learning.”

This was last updated in November 2016

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