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“Steep Learning Curve” or how human intuition has failed us again…

This morning, while checking tech news about all-things-mac, I’ve found a short news article about the rumored Tablet or Slate that Apple, Inc. is supposed to introduce end of January 2010. So far, nothing new… 🙂 However, Mac Essentials was reporting that Cult of Mac got a stunning piece of information from a supposedly Apple employee, namely that this new product would have a “steep learning curve”… That made me think about a paragraph I read recently in a book by Speelman  and Kirsner (2005), called “Beyond the Learning Curve“. They do indeed argue that many layperson have gotten the concept of the learning curve completely wrong…

When you observe people performing a new task (“new” meaning here that they are not proficient at this task at the beginning) and you plot their performance (e.g., the number of correct answers) over time, then you will get a graphical representation of their learning curve.

If this curve is STEEP, well then you are facing a task where people can rapidly have large performance gains. That means that, at the beginning of the learning process you will see dramatic and fast changes in performance. Often we observe that after this initial boost, incremental performance gains become smaller and smaller, either because their performance has reached an optimal level (ceiling effect) or because it has reached an intermediate plateau…

On the other hand, if this curve is rather FLAT, well then the task is really hard to master and it takes a lot of training to reach a somewhat expert level. Incremental steps in performance gains will be small and it will really take a long time before you can be called a master at this task.

How is it then possible that we have ended up with “steep learning curve” to be used as if it meant “a task where you need a lot of training to become somewhat good at it”? Well, my guess is that we often use our intuitive, concrete thinking processes to understand the world around us, and explanations that we construct about this world too… In this case, if we think of the learning curve in terms of the shape of a hill that we have to climb, then it seems rather plausible that a steep curve means that it’s very hard to reach the top, while a flat curve suggest that climbing the hill is fairly easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort…

What do you think? Has human intuition failed us again? And how can we counteract this fallacy?

Categories: Blog - Learning1
Max at 18:51 on 9 January 2010

Ech mengen den Probleem as dann ganz einfaach daat et vielleicht besser misst aklert sin, well wei der et jo lo schon aklert hudd, kann een dei Kuerw op zwee Weeer ferstoen, opwuel ech se zwar esou ferstaan hun wei an ärer eichter Aklerung. Mee do as jo den Web 2.0 haut ganz netzlech, vu que daat een sou Begreffer als Link zu enger Aklerung markeiaren kann an d Leit jo och zimlech oft d Meiglechkeet hun an Form vun Kommentarer esou eppes ze diskuteiaren.. oh mei ech sin elo voll Edtech meisseg drop;)
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