How to beat a learning plateau

When you are learning new stuff, there will come a time when you hit a plateau. At the plateau it feels like you’re not making any progress at all, no matter how hard you try. This can be a very frustrating experience, and unfortunately a lot of people give up learning and move on to something else (I know I have!). But the plateau is not an end, it’s a natural phase of the learning process and you are in fact still making progress.

Early stage learning
If we take learning a new sport as an example. When you first start you are a blank, you know nothing or not much about the sport. In the early months you will acquire new skills, learn the rules, experience the dynamics, and maybe even pick up some strategic insights. Progress is good! You see and experience that you get better at the sport every week and the progress satisfies you.

Hitting the plateau
But then slowly creeping in, your progress is not very visible anymore. You’re not learning a lot of new skills, you basically know them all already. There’s room for improvement, but you know the basics. You know the rules, have a feeling for the basic dynamics and crude strategies of the sport. You’re no longer a beginner, you are at intermediate level.

This is where you hit the plateau. The plateau is the experience where you feel that no matter how hard you try, there is no progress in learning. And even though this is not entirely true, the feeling is very real.

There are two major things happening here. The first is that you have progressed passed the bend in the learning curve. There are different stages in the learning curve:

  • Beginner stage (0% to 60%)
    The curve is very steep and you learn very fast
  • Intermediate stage (60% to 80%)
    This is passed the bend in the total curve. Learning speed declines and this phase takes longer than the beginner stage.
  • Advanced stage (80% to 95%)
    Learning speed declines even further and the length of the stage increases as again.
  • Expert or Master stage (95% to 100%)
    Learning speed drops to slow progress and the length of the stage stretches into eternity

So once you hit Intermediate level, your progress slows down. And at the same time it gets increasingly difficult to measure that progress, especially for the one learning the new sport. These effects combined result in the feeling that you have hit a plateau in learning.

Beating the plateau
Even when the plateau is not really a plateau (you’re still making progress), how can you beat the feeling that you’re not making progress? Here are some suggestions:

  • Focus on the fun
    Focus on enjoying what you’re doing, rather than on the progress you want to make. You have left the beginner stage, you’re at intermediate level already, now have some fun!
  • Take some time off
    If you get frustrated with the new sport (or every other learning process), take some time off. If you’re losing the fun, don’t pursue your learning goals relentlessly. Take some time off to regain the fun, but don’t quit!
  • Celebrate your intermediate level
    You’re not a beginner anymore! Be proud! At this time you can change from learning to gaining experience. At the intermediate stage and beyond gaining experience is the learning process. You have the rudimentary skills, now repeat them a lot to integrate them into your system. And by doing so you’re building confidence.
  • Accept that there is not learning plateau
    The learning plateau is not real, it’s a mental concept. You are making progress, it just doesn’t feel like it. Accept that there’s no learning plateau and reframe it to the concept of slower progress of more advanced stages. There is no learning plateau…

Posted in sprouting beans on Tue 2007.10.09

{ 12 comments }

amypalko October 9, 2007 at 09:22

I’m in the last year of my phd, and your post articulates my learning experience perfectly. After studying a topic for as long as I have, you do begin to experience the learning plateau. What makes it worth it, for me, is when you suddenly find that your understanding of that topic has taken a jump, one of those quantum leaps, where your research will never appear to you as it once did. And, like you say, it’s at this point that you discover there is no plateau. Your learning is exponential.
Thanks for such a great post!

Marc Hudgins October 9, 2007 at 17:04

I am a visual artist so my experience with the learning curve is often highly visible. I find that when I am in the early stages of a significant breakthrough in my abilities, I suffer from a nasty degree of ineptitude. Often my work actually drops below it’s normal level of quality while I process and integrate new skills into my repertoire. It’s frustrating ,but over the years I’ve come to embrace this temporary set-back as I know it means that better things are on their way.

Mark October 10, 2007 at 01:32

Great entry Lodewijk. It’s a process I’ve been through many times, though far too often I gave up not long after I plateaued. Now I’ve learnt to enjoy the experience itself regardless of the speed of progress, and to continue to make the experience more challenging.

Jean Browman--Cheerful Monk October 10, 2007 at 04:13

I love learning new things. I also believe if you don’t enjoy the process you’re throwing your life away.

Lodewijkvdb October 10, 2007 at 10:06

@amypalko: That must be a great feeling, suddenly realizing that you made a quantum leap! I like that description a lot :)

@Marc Hudgins: Frustration comes before a breakthrough! I’m glad you embraced it, it makes frustration a lot more ‘enjoyable’, knowing it’s a necessary step for that breakthrough. And thanks for the word ‘ineptitude’, you’ve enriched my English ;)

@Mark: I don’t know how many times I gave up on the plateau, but it’s a lot. But I realized that I often enjoyed the progress more than the activity I was learning. For stuff I really like to do and learn, plateau-ing is not an issue.

@Jean: So true. Life is as much about the destination as it is about the path.

No December 4, 2008 at 16:25

I like your post. It’s “take some time off”, not “of”.

tEST September 29, 2009 at 19:52

The plateu is just part of the learning process and,so one should learn to embrace it!!!

Having fun to is also a important part.

Peace!!!

Katrina April 1, 2010 at 03:32

Hi there! Thank you for posting this article. This is of great help with my review. Aside from that, it also inspired me to get better and to believe in my potentials. Thank you. Continue posting articles of same kind :)

JeDCee July 10, 2010 at 15:27

Gosh!… I quit learning karate because of this learning plateau!

Lodewijk July 10, 2010 at 20:41

We quit many things because of it. But it shouldn’t keep us, from beginning again :-)

Aldo October 1, 2012 at 03:18

Thanks for that knowledge, I’m looking for information about the plateau because I’m studying pedagogy. And you give some light with those words to explain what is plateau.

Thanks again. ;)

mohsen October 20, 2012 at 03:58

tank you very much for this post.I’d like it and used for conference in the class.
it’s useful totaly!!!

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