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What is the Learning Curve?

Where did the Learning Curve Originate?

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus coined the term we now know as the learning curve. What does that mean exactly? Simply put, it’s the idea that practice makes perfect.

Take yourself back to when you were given a recorder in elementary school and told to perform Mary had a Little Lamb. At first, every note sounded like the same high-pitched squeak, but every day you got a little better until you could finally belt it out with the best of ‘em.

Ebbinghaus tried an experiment similar to this, only instead of playing the same three notes on a plastic recorder, he tested himself by memorizing a series of nonsense syllables and documenting his success at reciting them back. The result? When he repeated the same task over and over again, he was not only more likely to remember it but also less likely to forget.

Now, reading this today, I’m sure sounds like a common sense principle; we all know that the more we do something, the better we’ll get. But up until Ebbinghaus’s experiment, no one in psychology had been known for taking the time to study human memory.

Ebbinghaus was particularly fascinated in discovering why we tend to forget what we’ve learned as time goes by. He initially referred to this as the Forgetting Curve but realized that if learning is rehearsed and repeated over a period of time, we forget less and remember more.

The curve is often seen as a graphical representation where experience (time, trials, etc.) is on the x-axis and learning (performance, knowledge, etc.) is on the y-axis, emphasizing the idea that learning improves with experience (Original source for graph).

It’s a simple enough concept, but is there any truth behind it?

The success of this theory seems to come particularly when dealing with a task that is process-oriented and measurable. Imagine you just made a trip to Ikea with your significant other and you’re now in charge of putting together six new dining room chairs. The instructions are always in a different language, and the first chair always ends up being put together backward and upside down (which you didn’t even think was possible, but it is). By the fifth chair, however, you’re an expert and could assemble one of these bad boys correctly and in two minutes flat.

Examples similar to the Ikea chair reinforce Ebbinghaus’s results and are why the theory has risen in popularity over the years and adapted for various industries.

While the learning curve originated as a psychology principle by Ebbinghaus to study the way people learn but was quickly adopted into economics and machine building as a way to perform meaner, leaner and cleaner.

In fact, in 1936, Theodore Paul Wright attributed the effects of learning to improved production costs in aircraft manufacturing and proposed a mathematical redesign of the curve. Then in 1968 Bruce Henderson redesigned Wright’s model to include a wider range of industries and rebranded the theory as The Experience Curve.

Ultimately, Ebbinghaus’s initial findings have proven to remain accurate over the years, and it has been universally agreed upon that as education and experience rise, productivity and revenue follow-suit.

Putting the Learning Curve to Use

Now that we know what it is, why should we care about the learning curve?

As a society, we spend a lot of time identifying the different ways students learn in a classroom. We understand that some people are visual learners, others are audio, and we recognize that no student is the same in regards to how long it takes them to learn a subject.

Because of this, we’ve seen a rise in a more hands-on and technology-focused approach to teaching in school - which is excellent! But why don’t we adopt this same principle to business?

If we know that an employee performs better with continued experience and training, why do we throw them into the line of fire with minimal resources? Or, a better question might be, why do we continue to spend time and money on the same training that hasn’t proven to be useful in the past?

A Christo Popov article for Forbes Magazine states, “I’ve seen a few common problems in companies’ existing training programs. The big one has no strategic focus on their training. Often programs fall short of being both interesting and useful—qualities that should be mandatory. Interesting training enriches your life, energizes you and ideally makes you more loyal to the company. Useful training offers a practical skill critical to this stage of organizational development.”

How Does this Apply to Training?

In regards to everyday training practices, research also shows that within one hour, people will have forgotten an average of 50 percent of the information. Within 24 hours, they have forgotten an average of 70 percent of new information, and within a week, forgetting claims an average of 90 percent of it. So, how do we change this?

To improve productivity and efficiency, we should start cutting costs on training that isn’t working and start investing in smarter options. Let’s take Ebbinghaus’s discovery that people learn more and forget less when they are given the information in small, bite-sized pieces over time.

We can do this by providing them with comprehensive apps and eLearning that allows the employee access to the quality resources they need when they need it. Not only that, but it fosters an environment that continues to challenge their learning even after their formal training has been completed using these customized methods which have been proven to elicit positive results.

Want to see how you can combat the learning curve?

Check out this mobile-first, continuous learning app we built.

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