Progress in learning is best observable when we represent our measurements graphically, when they take the form of a curve, variously called "the curve of efficiency," "practice curve," "learning curve." We shall take a sample curve for the basis of our discussion, showing the progress of a beginner in the Russian language for sixty-five days (indicated in the figure by horizontal divisions). The student studied industriously for thirty minutes each day and then translated as rapidly as possible for fifteen minutes, the number of words translated being represented by the vertical spaces on the chart. Thus, on the tenth day, twenty-five words were translated, on the twentieth day, forty-five words.
In making an analysis of this typical curve, we note immediately an exceeding irregularity. At one time there is extraordinary improvement, but a later measurement registers pronounced loss. This irregularity is very common in learning. Some days we do a great amount of work and do it well, but perhaps the very next day shows marked diminution in our work.
The second characteristic we note is that there is extremely rapid progress at the beginning, the curve slanting up quite sharply. This is common in learning, and may be accounted for in several ways. In the first place, the easiest things come first. For example, when you are beginning the study of German, you are given mostly monosyllabic words to learn. These are easily remembered, hence progress is rapid. A second reason is that at the beginning there are many different respects in which progress can be made. For example, the beginner in German must learn nouns, case endings, declension of adjectives, days of the week; in short, a vast number of new things all at once. At a later period however, the number of new things to be learned is much smaller and improvement cannot be so rapid. A third reason why learning proceeds more rapidly at first is that the interest is greater at this time. You have doubtless many times experienced this fact, and you know that when a thing has the interest of novelty you work harder upon it.
If you will examine the learning curve closely, you will note that after the initial spurt, there is a slowing up. The curve at this point resembles a plateau and indicates cessation of progress if not retrogression. This period of no progress is regarded as a characteristic of the learning curve and is a time of great discouragement to the conscientious student, so distressing that we may designate it "the plateau of despond." Most people describe it as a time when they feel unable to learn more about a subject; the mind seems to be sated; new ideas cannot be assimilated, and old ones seem to be forgotten. The plateau may extend for a long or a short time, depending upon the nature of the subject-matter and the length of time over which the learning extends. In the case of professional training, it may extend over a year or more. In the case of growing children in school, it sometimes happens that an entire year elapses during which the learning of an apparently bright student is retarded. In a course of study in high school or college, it may come on about the third week and extend a month or more. Something akin to the plateau may come in the course of a day, when we realize that our efficiency is greatly diminished and we seem, for an hour or more, to make no progress.
Inasmuch as the plateau is such a common occurrence in human activity, we should analyze it and see what factors operate to influence it. It is interesting to note that the plateau generally occurs just before an abrupt rise in efficiency. This is significant, for it may mean that the plateau is necessary in learning, especially just before reaching the really advanced stages of proficiency. Accordingly, when you are experiencing a plateau in the mastery of some accomplishment, you may perhaps derive some comfort from the prospect of an approaching rise in efficiency. On the theory that it is a necessary part of learning, it has been regarded as a resting place. We are so constituted by nature that we cannot run on indefinitely; nature sometimes must call a halt. Consequently, the plateau may be a warning that we cannot learn more for the present and that the proper remedy is to refrain for a little while from further efforts in that line. We have possible justification for this interpretation when we reflect that a vacation does us much good, and though we begin it feeling stale, we end it feeling much fresher and more efficient.
But to stop work temporarily is not the only way to meet a plateau, and fatigue or ennui is probably not the sole or most compelling explanation. It may be that we should not regard the objective results as the true measure of learning; perhaps learning is going on even though the results are not apparent. We discovered something in the nature of unconscious learning in our discussion of memory, and it may be that a period of little objective progress marks a period of active unconscious learning.
Another meaning which the plateau may have is simply to mark places of greater difficulty. As already remarked, the early period is a stage of comparative ease, but as the work becomes more difficult, progress is slower. It is also quite likely that the plateau may indicate that some of the factors operative at the start are operative no longer. Thus, although the learning was rapid at the beginning because the material learned at that time was easy, the plateau may come because the things to be learned have become difficult. Or, whereas the beginning was attacked with considerable interest, the plateau may mean that the interest is dying down, and that less effort is being exerted.
If these theories are the true explanation of the plateau, we see that it is not to be regarded as a time of reduction in learning, to be contemplated with despair. The appropriate attitude may be one of resignation, with the determination to make it as slightly disturbing as possible. But though the reasons just described may have something to do with the production of the plateau, as yet we have no evidence that the plateau cannot be dispensed with. It is practically certain that the plateau is not caused entirely by necessity for rest or unconscious learning. It frequently is due, we must regretfully admit, to poor early preparation. If at the beginning of a period of learning an insecure foundation is laid, it cannot be expected to support the burden of more difficult subject-matter.
We have enumerated a number of the explanations that have been advanced to account for the plateau, and have seen that it may have several causes, among which are necessity for rest, increased difficulty of subject-matter, loss of interest and insufficient preparation. In trying to eliminate the plateau, our remedy should be adapted to the cause. In recognition of the fact that learning proceeds irregularly, we see that it is rational to expect the amount of effort to be exerted throughout a period of learning, to vary. It will vary partly with the difficulty of subject-matter and partly with fluctuations in bodily and mental efficiency which are bound to occur from day to day. Since this irregularity is bound to occur, you may well make your effort vary from one extreme to the other. At times, perhaps your most profitable move may be to take a complete vacation. The vacation might cover several weeks, a week-end, or if the plateau is merely a low period in the day's work, then ten minutes may suffice for a vacation. As an adjunct to such rest periods, some form of recreation should usually be planned, for the essential thing is to permit the mind to rest from the tiresome activity.
If your plateau represents greater difficulty of subject-matter and loss of interest, your duty is plainly to work harder. In exerting more effort, make some changes in your methods of study. For example, if you have been accustomed to study a certain subject by silent reading, begin to read your lessons aloud. Change your method of taking notes, or change the hour of day in which you prepare your lesson. In short, try any of the methods described in this book, and use your own ingenuity, and the change in method may overcome the plateau.
If a plateau is due to our last-mentioned cause, insufficient preparation, the remedy must be drastic. To make new resolutions and to put forth additional effort is not enough; you must go back and relay the foundation. Make a thorough review of the work which you covered slightingly, making sure that every step is clear. This process was described in an earlier chapter as the clarification of ideas and is absolutely essential in building up a structure of knowledge that will stand. Indeed, as you take various courses you will find that your study will be much improved by periodical reviews. The benefits cannot all be enumerated here, but we may reasonably claim that a review will be very likely to remove a plateau, and used with the other remedies herein suggested, will help you to rid yourself of one of the most discouraging features of student life.