WootBot


quality posts: 17 Private Messages WootBot

Staff

It's September and parents are rejoicing, because kids are (finally!) heading back to school! Crayons and binders and graphing calculators are flying off store shelves; beanbag chairs for dorm rooms are getting stuffed into the backs of station wagons. But maybe we all need to be taken to school, because a lot of the stuff we think we know about education would get us an 'F' on the final exam. Ken Jennings, that Jeopardy! guy, will be standing in front of the class all month with his red marker at the ready, to correct all that academic misinformation.

The Debunker: What Is a "Steep" Learning Curve?

Colloquially speaking, lots of things have a steep learning curve. The French horn. Arabic, Mandarin, and Hungarian. Adobe Photoshop. Those insanely complicated World War II board games that your weirdest college roommate liked to play. We understand the phrase "steep learning curve" to refer to difficulty, like the steepness of climbing a hill: it takes a lot of effort to make gains in proficiency when learning a daunting new skill set.

The Debunker

But there's a big problem with this usage: a "learning curve" is actually a real graph used in social sciences like psychology, education, and economics, and it works the opposite of how you're picturing. Like most graphs of this kind, time elapsed, as an independent variable, goes on the horizontal axis. The proficiency change in a learning curve goes on the vertical axis. This practice goes back as far as the 1880s, when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, studying the human memory, would have subjects memorize lists of nonsense syllables, and graph their performance against time.

So consider: if the actual learning on a learning curve is graphed vertically, then steepness is a good thing! It means that the learner is gaining proficiency over a relatively short period of time. In technical parlance, a skill with a "steep learning curve" is actually one where introductory skills can be learned very quickly, like playing the ukulele, or tic-tac-toe. But etymologists have found citations of people using the phrase wrong since at least 1973. Apparently this simple three-word phrase has a surprisingly, uh, challenging learning curve.

Quick Quiz: A minute to learn, a lifetime to master!" was the slogan of Mattel's "reversi" board game named after what Shakespeare character?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

dwootshrute


quality posts: 2 Private Messages dwootshrute

The game is Othello.

therealjrn


quality posts: 82 Private Messages therealjrn

Pshaw, Ken Jennings. You apparently don't have a learning curve flat enough to know about The Cones of Dunshire.

I must say, Ken Jennings, I'm beginning to doubt your veracity.

wootwootwoot555


quality posts: 0 Private Messages wootwootwoot555

NICE REFERENCE TO "Parks and Rec"!!!! Lol


therealjrn wrote:Pshaw, Ken Jennings. You apparently don't have a learning curve flat enough to know about The Cones of Dunshire.

I must say, Ken Jennings, I'm beginning to doubt your veracity.



wootwootwoot555


quality posts: 0 Private Messages wootwootwoot555

Othello....but I prefer "Go Bang"...it's real, you can look it up! Xo

moles1138


quality posts: 49 Private Messages moles1138
wootwootwoot555 wrote:Othello....but I prefer "Go Bang"...it's real, you can look it up! Xo



The mediocre Shriekback album?

Southern


quality posts: 0 Private Messages Southern

It is not easy to read anything Ken Jennings writes knowing that he made fun of 11 year old Barron Trump.

adamsidney


quality posts: 0 Private Messages adamsidney
Southern wrote:It is not easy to read anything Ken Jennings writes knowing that he made fun of 11 year old Barron Trump.



Agreed. Somehow I went from thinking he was pretty great to zero respect overnight.

olcubmaster


quality posts: 33 Private Messages olcubmaster
Southern wrote:It is not easy to read anything Ken Jennings writes knowing that he made fun of 11 year old Barron Trump.



The issue has been addressed in multiple forums (and as I recall including this one) many times.

Can we limit this forum to the chosen topic each week and refrain from the weekly expressions of righteous outrage against Ken? At this point the comments are as mean-spirited as those you found offensive.

Sugar 'em up and send 'em home

zmerch


quality posts: 0 Private Messages zmerch

I'm sorry, but Ken is incorrect in his line of thinking on this one, and he says so himself.

To quote:

Ken Jennings wrote:...would have subjects memorize lists of nonsense syllables, and graph their performance against time.

(emphasis mine, BTW.)

The graphs, by the definition that Ken gives, aren't of the skills themselves, they're of the individuals performing the task. And, those users all performed the same task and ended up with different performance graphs.

So, an individual that could not learn the nonsense syllables quickly would *not* have a 'steep learning curve' as it would be relatively flat.

Thus, a 'steep learning curve' is the measure of an individual to master a complex task quickly, not of the task itself. So the only time the "phrase is used wrong" is when you attribute the curve to the task, not the individual.

Even when when used wrong (attributing the curve to the task), the "steeper" the learning curve, fewer individuals will be able to replicate it (read that as: the curve will be much flatter for most people for that task).

I apologize for the "parting shot" but one other thing I noticed about this post is a ukulele isn't much easier to learn to play than a standard guitar (knowledge of this garnered from google searches, but sparked by my inability to learn the guitar) - if he wanted a simplistic musical instrument to compare to tic-tac-toe, I would think the tambourine (or more comically, the kazoo) would be a much 'closer' fit than a ukulele.

dryfus423


quality posts: 3 Private Messages dryfus423

I've had that same thought about the ukulele. I have heard that it is easy to learn, but have not found that to be true. Maybe that should be the subject of a future post. Is the ukulele actually easy to learn?

zmerch wrote:I'm sorry, but Ken is incorrect in his line of thinking on this one, and he says so himself.

To quote:

(emphasis mine, BTW.)

The graphs, by the definition that Ken gives, aren't of the skills themselves, they're of the individuals performing the task. And, those users all performed the same task and ended up with different performance graphs.

So, an individual that could not learn the nonsense syllables quickly would *not* have a 'steep learning curve' as it would be relatively flat.

Thus, a 'steep learning curve' is the measure of an individual to master a complex task quickly, not of the task itself. So the only time the "phrase is used wrong" is when you attribute the curve to the task, not the individual.

Even when when used wrong (attributing the curve to the task), the "steeper" the learning curve, fewer individuals will be able to replicate it (read that as: the curve will be much flatter for most people for that task).

I apologize for the "parting shot" but one other thing I noticed about this post is a ukulele isn't much easier to learn to play than a standard guitar (knowledge of this garnered from google searches, but sparked by my inability to learn the guitar) - if he wanted a simplistic musical instrument to compare to tic-tac-toe, I would think the tambourine (or more comically, the kazoo) would be a much 'closer' fit than a ukulele.



benjimann1


quality posts: 1 Private Messages benjimann1

Nice to know how social scientists graph their research results! I guess the rest of us prefer to graph alternative variables.

Whenever I use the phrase "incorrectly", I imagine a graph of "proficiency" (horizontal axis) against "knowledge of subject" (vertical axis)...indicating that it takes a lot of knowledge in order to attain even beginner-level proficiency.