The Learning Curve 

It is a cliché today to refer to a “steep learning curve” to indicate that something is difficult to learn. In practice, a curve of the amount learned against the number of trials (in experiments) or over time (in reality) is just the opposite: if something is difficult, the line rises slowly or shallowly. So the steep curve refers to the demands of the task rather than a description of the process.

A correspondent has pointed out that this usage is quite different from that in production management, where the learning curve refers to decreasing costs of unit production as a result of "learning" in the broadest sense, including initial set-up costs. Click here for a fuller account

As the figure of a fairly typical learning “curve” shows, it does not proceed smoothly: the plateaux and troughs are normal features of the process.  

Note that this is depicted as a generally rising line: the curve noted above is a falling one, as indeed were Thorndike's original curves


In the acquisition of skills, a major issue is the reliability of the performance. Any novice can get it right occasionally (beginner’s luck), but it is consistency which counts, and the progress of learning is often assessed on this basis. The following stages are an adaptation of Reynolds’ (1965) model. She also points out that learning skills is largely a matter of them “soaking in”, so that performance becomes less self-conscious as learning progresses, and that the transition from one phase to another is marked by a release of energy, in the form of the freedom to concentrate on other things. (The horizontal line represents a notional threshold of  “competence”)


She also suggests that the final phase (which I have referred to as “Second Nature”) is characterised by an ability to teach the skill. At earlier stages, the learner is not confident enough to analyse their own practice thoroughly enough to be able to teach it: there is a feeling of mystique and fragility —if I examine it too closely I might not be able to perform as well again. (Reminiscent of the story of the young centipede, who was getting along fine until someone asked him which leg came next.)

There is an interesting distinction to be drawn between learning which follows this pattern, and that in which increasing sophistication and expertise is characterised by increasing reflection — in the one case the better you get the less you think about it (as in driving or typing), in the other the better you get the more you think about it (as in teaching, or perhaps selling). I suspect that it is not the skill itself which draws this distinction, but the degree of uncertainty in the immediate environment.

Linked to the Reynolds idea is the popular "progression of competence" model:

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence

— which of course assumes that the last is the most desirable state. (Although there are various candidates for a fifth state)

No-one seem to know definitively where this comes from. Thanks to Alan Chapman of this excellent linked site for indefatigable efforts to run it down!

See the linked argument about forms of practice

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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