Learning Curve

PSYCH-105 Industrial Psychology

Chapter 18: Training and Development

Unit 1

Unit 2

Unit 3

Unit 4



Learning is defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of prior experience. 

Learning Curve

A learning curve is a diagrammatic presentation of the amount learnt in relation to time. A learning curve is a graphical representation of the increase of learning (vertical axis) with experience (horizontal axis). A typical learning curve shows on the y axis the amount of learning and on the X axis the passage of time figure represents a generalized learning curve, which shows the extent to which the rate of learning increases or decreases with practice.

The first person to describe the learning curve was Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. His tests involved memorizing series of nonsense syllables, and recording the success over a number of trials. The translation does not use the term learning curve—but he presents diagrams of learning against trial number. He also notes that the score can decrease, or even oscillate. It is also called improvement curve, progress curve.

Fig.: Learning Curve

Characteristic of Learning Curve

1. Initial spurt

At the beginning, it is natural that the rate of learning exhibits spurt. Usually the graph levels off at some stage, indicating that maximum performance has been achieved. It is because at the beginning of the learning process, the subject is highly motivated and seems to exhibit a significant surge of effort.

2. Learning plateau

At some point of the learning process there is a flattening off in terms of the improvement, a plateau. Frequently, the process of learning is marked by discontinuities and involves escalating from one plateau to another. 

3. Organization of learning

Jumping from one plateau to another is called organization of learning. Organization of learning is achieved when the learner discovers a new and more effective method of performing particular tasks.

4. Disorganization of learning

It is an actual fall in performance. This arises when the subject has to choose between alternative methods of tackling a task.

5. End spurt

When the training season draws to an end and the subject realizes this, there occurs resurgence of interest and effort to learn more. This revival is called the end spurt.


There are four theories which explain how learning occurs

1. Classical Conditioning Theory

This theory was given by Ivan Pavlov in 1904. Classical conditioning is based on the premise that a physical event – termed a stimulus – that initially does not elicit a particular response gradually acquires the capacity to elicit that response as a result of repeated pairing with a stimulus that elicits a reaction.

2. Operant Conditioning Theory

American Psychologist B.F. Skinner defined operant conditioning as: it is a process of shaping behaviour by means of reinforcement and punishment. Operant conditioning also called instrumental conditioning refers to the process that our behaviour produces certain consequences. If our actions have pleasant effects, then we will be more likely to repeat them in the future. If, however, our actions have unpleasant effects, we are less likely to repeat them in the future. Thus, according to this theory, behaviour is the function of its consequences.

3. Social Learning Theory / Observational Learning

Social learning theory also called as observational learning, occurs by observing other – parents, teachers, film stars and other popular figures in public life. The learner picks up whatever the role model does or does not do. The social learning theory is based on the belief that human behaviour is determined by a constant reciprocal relationship between cognitive factors (i.e., knowledge beliefs and expectations), environmental factors (i.e., social norms) and behaviour factors (i.e., self efficacy, skills).

4. Cognitive Theory

Contemporary perspective about learning is that it is a cognitive process. Cognitive process assumes that people are conscious, active participants in how they learn. Cognitive theory of learning assumes that the organism learns the meaning of various objects and events and learned responses depending on the meaning assigned to stimuli.

Principles of Learning Curve

1. Motivation

An employee must see a purpose in learning the information presented and have a clear understanding of what is presented. If these two factors are considered, there will be a greater chance of satisfaction.

2. Meaningfulness of material

The training material must relate to the purpose of the training program or it will stop being a motivator. Further, the material must be presented in a sequential manner, from the simple to the more complex. Further training should provide variety to prevent boredom and fatigue. Materials can be presented through case studies, lectures, films, discussions or simulated computer games.

3. Reinforcement, Punishment and Extinction

New ideas and skills need to be practiced as soon as they learnt. When on the job, both positive and negative reinforcements should be used. If behaviour is undesirable the negative reinforcement such as denial of a pay raise, promotion or transfer can be effective.

4. Organization of material

The trainer must remember that well organized material will help the trainees to remember the things taught to him. Presenting an overview of the material in a logical order will help the employee understand everything.

5. Learning curves

A learning curve is a graphical representation of the increase of learning (vertical axis) with experience (horizontal axis).

6. Learning styles

Learning style refers to the ability of an individual to learn. There are four styles people use when learning: accommodation, divergence, assimilation and convergence.

Fig.: Learning Styles

Although learning can take place without effective aids, it is uneconomical because it takes longer and does not permit the ineffectively trained worker to reach his maximum output. Familiarity with the typical learning curve allows for comparison between it and any specific learning process of a particular task. Marked deflections of the curve, is they are frequent may indicate that something is wrong with the training method.

Author – Dr. Niyati Garg

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