Strong opinions, weakly held

Why I don’t talk about learning curves

I don’t want to pick on this person, so I won’t use their name, but I saw this in a blog post today:

The most common complaint people have when learning Haskell is the steep learning curve.

It’s a very typical example of a mistake I see all the time, which is that when people say something has a steep learning curve, they mean that it’s difficult to learn. It’s understandable why people would think that way — steep things are difficult to climb.

However, the X axis on the plot of a learning curve is the resources invested, and the Y axis represents the level of mastery attained. You can look it up. So a steep curve means that initial progress in learning is very rapid. The fuller definition of a steep learning curve is that initial progress is rapid but that the curve plateaus and progress becomes difficult.

Unfortunately, the rampant misuse of “steep learning curve” means that if I use it correctly, nobody will actually get what I’m talking about. If I use it incorrectly, then I’m part of the problem. The end result has been to discourage discussion of learning curves using that terminology at all. Nobody seems to mind.


  1. You’re a pedant, and I mean that in the nicest way.

  2. Nice observation. I had never given it much thought. Of course you’re right.

  3. I guess people imagine themselves travelling along the curve instead of parsing it mathematically. In this case it is probably a case of a confusing / counterintuitive infographic and not stupid people.

  4. People are definitely not stupid. “Steep” usually equates to “difficult,” especially for upward sloping curves.

  5. Think of it as “amount you have to learn” vertically, and “usefulness” horizontally. Then “steep learning curve” means what it means in use.

  6. I’ve always taken it to mean that the more you learn the harder it is to advance. A straight line would mean a constant relationship between effort and expertise, whereas a curve represents increasing effort for a constant change in expertise.

    If the X axis is expertise and the Y axis is effort, the steeper the curve, the harder something is to learn.

  7. You get that with “lion’s share” as well. If you remember the fable, the lion’s share was all of it, not the greater portion of it. “Hobson’s choice” also gets a folk definition. Hobson offered his customers only a take it or leave it choice, not a hard to make choice.

    Nowadays a steep learning curve means one that is hard to climb. It’s like bitching that turtles are birds (doves in particular) not reptiles. Sure, you might be right, but what of it.

  8. @Q, If the X axis is expertise and the Y axis is effort, the steeper the curve, the harder something is to learn.

    The dependent variable (in this case effort or time put into learning the skill) needs to be on the x axis

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