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3 Things To Know About The Learning Curve

the learning curve

In my workplace, we’re fighting over our learning curve (of course, we don’t call it that).

It has to do with our pay scales and job categories. To make a long story short, if we can prove to our employer that it takes our rookies two years instead of just one to be fully autonomous, we’ll move up a category and get a 5% raise. Yes, there’s excitement in the air.

In any job or human activity, efficiency increases with repetition, and a learning curve is the best way to quantify and graphically show that improvement.

Here are three things you should know about this curve.

First, the learning curve can either go up or down. It goes down when it measures the decreasing time, energy or number of trials needed to perform a task (vertical axis) as experience increases (horizontal axis).

But usually, the first image that comes to mind is a curve that goes up. In this case, we measure the increasing scores or amount of learning (vertical axis) that result from increasing experience or study (horizontal axis).

By the way, when people speak of a steep learning curve, they actually say the opposite of what they think, because a steep curve really means rapid progress.

Second, the learning curve usually follows an S-shape (see image above). When you start something new, you typically struggle at first; after a while, you quickly improve; but as time goes on, your rate of improvement decreases and even levels off.

This last phase derives from the law of diminishing returns, which says that making progress becomes more and more difficult as you get closer to a high level of expertise. Each unit of input will produce less and less output.

The S-shape is especially true for skill learning. My daughter is currently learning to play the recorder, and I can testify to that.

Third, the learning curve is used in many industries, not only to assess the progress of workers but also that of the organization as a whole. Each time the production quantity is doubled, the rate of improvement can increase from 5% to 30% depending on the type of work.

Here are some industries’ average rates of learning.

  • Raw materials: 5%
  • Electronics manufacturing: 10%
  • Aerospace: 15%
  • Shipbuilding: 20%
  • Electrical operations: 25%

As my story above shows, my employer pays us according to some preset categories of difficulty rather than considering individual improvement. But variations exist not only among tasks, but obviously among people too.

Do you know how to recognize peak learners’ learning curves? Well, look for curves that are steep, straight and that seem to go on forever.