Steep Learning Curve

The phrase everyone gets wrong. Outside experimental psychology, where the term originated, I have never seen a correct usage. Learning curves show performance (e.g., percent correct) as a function of amount of training (e.g., number of trials). A steep learning curve means the organization, person, or animal quickly went from low to high performance — in other words, learning was fast.

The phrase is always used to mean the opposite (slow learning). An example from Economic Principals:

But experience has shown that high fixed costs, steep learning curves, access to delivery systems and expensively-maintained reputations are powerful deterrents to ambitious start-ups.

4 Replies to “Steep Learning Curve”

  1. It’s routinely used correctly in industrial manufacturing, where it refers to cost reductions that result from manufacturing experience and competition. There, cost starts at a normalized 1 and declines exponentially toward an asymptotic horizontal somewhere (presumably) above zero.

  2. The normal usage of the phrase is very closely related to the actual meaning, though. When someone says “product X has a steep learning curve”, they mean “product X requires that you go from low to high performance very quickly to use it” — it’s a product that isn’t worth using if you’re not going to learn quickly.

  3. ah, thanks for this.

    I always used it wrongly for a different reason. I use it to mean “difficult” (which would be an axis of Effort and Time).

    Good to learn where I’m wrong (again)


  4. Achieving a steep learning curve can feel difficult, because there can be much to learn in a short time. I think you are correct to note that the term is hardly ever used to describe situations where it was easy to go from low to high performance. Intuitively, a steep hill is one that is hard to climb, so the phrase is naturally associated with situations where learning feels like quickly climbing a steep hill.

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