on the learning curve / learning curve has been steep

NickJunior

Senior Member
Khmer
What does the expression "on the learning curve" mean? Does it mean that the person is still learning the nuts and bolts of the topic? Or does it simply mean that the person is still learning about the topic? Thanks for your help.

Here is the context: A team leader was explaining about a new topic and she didn't seem to understand clearly of the different details that should go together. Then one of the crew members whispered: "She is still on the learning curve."
 
  • kardorion

    Senior Member
    Bilingual: English (UK)-Turkish
    I think it simply means she still hasn't learnt it properly, she's still learning. (But not at the very beginning)
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    I think it simply means she still hasn't learnt it properly, she's still learning. (But not at the very beginning)
    The 'curve' refers to the curving line of a graph, rising from a base bottom left up towards top right. We talk of a steep learning curve, meaning that we have to learn a lot in a short time. A shallow learning curve (which we hardly ever hear of) would relate to a relaxed period of learning in which we take our time and are not pushed by our teachers.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    There may be some people, Nick, who would object to your original sentence She is still on the learning curve because it's just a long-winded and perhaps slightly pompous (even jargonistic) way of saying She's still learning.
    (Whereas It's a steep learning curve is a handy short way of saying There is a lot to be learnt in a short space of time.)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The 'curve' refers to the curving line of a graph, rising from a base bottom left up towards top right. We talk of a steep learning curve, meaning that we have to learn a lot in a short time. A shallow learning curve (which we hardly ever hear of) would relate to a relaxed period of learning in which we take our time and are not pushed by our teachers.
    I wonder what makes you say that learning curves rise, Elwintee. It's odd that this particular piece of Economics should have caught the imagination so widely.

    Most of the ones I've dealt with have time on the x-axis and such things as time taken, or productivity, on the y-axis. Clearly, as people learn, the time it takes them to perform a job falls (so the cost (or time taken) learning curve falls), and the productivity rises (so that learning curve rises). These things usually happen at decreasing rates (early learning has a greater immediate impact than subsequent learning), and often the y-axis carries rates of changes in the variables, rather than the absolute value of the variable itself, so that a horizontal line would represent a constant rate of change (3%, 6%/a year, or whatever), and such curves will, of course, normally fall, and probably at a decreasing rate, as learning has a smaller and smaller proportional impact against time, whether the absolute values are rising or falling - because they are doing so at a decreasing rate.

    I don't think most lay people are much concerned with these things, or whether the curve is rising or falling. Clearly if the curve is steep, whether rates of change or absolute figures are on the y-axis, the impact of learning on productivity is great.

    Thus people say she's on a steep learning curve to mean, as people have suggested, that she's learning fast.

    To my mind the expression has been overused, abused even, and, like Ewie, and like most economists, I avoid it, except when I'm writing Economics.
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Steep learning curves are one of my pet hate clichés - for the reasons outlined by ThomasT.
    When I first came across the things, they were a plot of % of required material learned against time.
    They began at the origin and moved in the general direction of 100%.
    They could be steep or shallow.
    They could plot students' performance or a learning requirement.
    A steep learning curve could indicate the performance of a good student on a simple course or an onerous learning requirement (you have to master relativity in three hours).

    But of course the general perception of "steep learning curve" has very little relationship to the actual use of the things.

    Rant over.
    Still on the learning curve = still learning.
    She knows more than nothing, and less than everything.
    Since none of us ever gets to know everything about anything, it's not very meaningful.
     

    sandycai

    Member
    Chinese
    Passionate consumers would try to persuade others to boycott their products, putting the reputation of the target company at risk. In such a case, the company’s response may not be sufficiently quick or thoughtful, and the learning curve has been steep.

    What's the meaning of “the learning curve has been steep”? Does it mean if the company does not react fast or thoughtfully, they will face a bad result? Thank you very much.

    << Moderator's note: This thread has been merged with an earlier thread on the same idiom. >>
     
    Last edited by a moderator:

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Something with a steep learning curve is difficult to learn (Photoshop and English come to mind :)). It sounds like companies in general have not learned a difficult lesson fast enough.

    I'm not sure I would have used that expression here. I think what is meant is that companies have been slow to understand the importance of being "sufficiently quick or thought." Slow to learn (companies) and difficult to learn (subjects) are two different things, in my opinion.

    Do you have more context for this, such as a link?
     

    sandycai

    Member
    Chinese
    Something with a steep learning curve is difficult to learn (Photoshop and English come to mind :)). It sounds like companies in general have not learned a difficult lesson fast enough.

    I'm not sure I would have used that expression here. I think what is meant is that companies have been slow to understand the importance of being "sufficiently quick or thought." Slow to learn (companies) and difficult to learn (subjects) are two different things, in my opinion.

    Do you have more context for this, such as a link?
    Thank you. Here is the link. http://www.forbeschina.com/review/201012/0005820.shtml
    It is a long passage.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Thank you for the link -- it was interesting reading. The section under which your "steep learning curve" appears is called Hijacked -- about online media, such as a company website, that has literally been hijacked or taken over by irate consumers, or where another website such as YouTube has been used to post video messages detrimental to your company's reputation.

    Two sentences just before your quote:

    Members of social networks, for instance, are learning that they can hijack media to apply pressure on the businesses that originally created them. High-profile examples involve companies ranging from Nestlé (whose Facebook page was hijacked) to Domino’s Pizza (a prank online video of two employees contaminating sandwiches appeared on YouTube).

    So when the article says that, In such a case, the company’s response may not be sufficiently quick or thoughtful, and the learning curve has been steep, I think they're alluding to the fact that learning about all the various aspects -- good and bad, and how to defend yourself from the bad-- of the new media has been difficult.

    It is easy for company executives to see how having their own website could be good for business -- it's relatively inexpensive, it's always-on advertising, and you can speak at great length about your products. What often hasn't been thought of is what happens if someone hijacks your website or takes it down with a denial-of-service attack or mounts a counter-attack to your claim in alternative online media.

    These are the things that companies need to imagine and to develop responses to -- which they are having difficulty with for a variety of reasons, e.g. failures of imagination, technical ability or marketing savvy.
     

    Egmont

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Something with a steep learning curve is difficult to learn ...
    Actually, something with a steep learning curve is learned quickly - usually, because it's easy. The common usage, as given in the quoted phrase, is wrong.

    The term originated in U.S. military manufacturing during World War II. It was found that, whatever was to be produced, it initially took a certain amount of time. Making twice as many of it took less time. Every time the number of items produced doubled, there was the same percentage reduction in production time.

    For example, suppose it took 10 hours to produce the first airplane propeller of a certain type. The second one might take 8 hours (20 percent less). The fourth would take 20 percent less than that, or 6.4 hours. The eighth would take 20 percent less than that, or 5.1 hours. The sixteenth would have the same percentage reduction, or 4.1 hours. And so on. The number of propellers has to double each time for the same 20 percent time reduction. Once one has made several thousand propellers, further drops will be small and slow to come.

    The learning curve shows this graphically. It drops more rapidly at first, then more slowly. A steep learning curve is where the time to do something goes down quickly; that is, learning is fast. When learning is slow or difficult, the curve is shallow (or flat).

    The term is often used incorrectly today, though. A "steep learning curve" often means that something is difficult. It is meant this way in some of the uses quoted earlier in this thread. Neither I nor all the forum visitors can reverse this change to its original meaning, since language evolves, but it can be good to know about it.

    In terms of the original problem of this thread, "on the learning curve" means "still learning" - that is, not so experienced that the learning curve is essentially flat and further improvements will come slowly if at all.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Actually, something with a steep learning curve is learned quickly - usually, because it's easy. The common usage, as given in the quoted phrase, is wrong.
    I'm not an expert but I don't see how comparing difficulty of learning the details of a complex subject -- the more you know, the more you realize there is to know -- to a manufacturing process that naturally benefits from repetition and increased production gets us any closer to understanding "learning curve." It would seem to be a "production curve" (at least to this layman).

    From Wiki on Learning Curve:
    The familiar expression "steep learning curve" may refer to either of two aspects of a pattern in which the marginal rate of required resource investment is initially low, perhaps even decreasing at the very first stages, but eventually increases without bound.

    Early uses of the metaphor focused on the pattern's positive aspect, namely the potential for quick progress in learning (as measured by, e.g., memory accuracy or the number of trials required to obtain a desired result) at the introductory or elementary stage.

    Over time, however, the metaphor has become more commonly used to focus on the pattern's negative aspect, namely the difficulty of learning once one gets beyond the basics of a subject.

    There's certain more in that article for those interested.

     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Unless you define clearly what the "learning curve" plots, the absolute meaning of a "steep learning curve" cannot be determined.

    However, the expression in common use is not an objective and meaningful description in the context of a particular graphical depiction.
    In common use, it means that a lot has to be learnt in a short time.
     
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