How Learning Plateaus Set the Stage for Future Progress



“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” — Frederick Douglass

Sometimes when we learn something new, progress happens slowly and quietly in the background.

Sometimes we hit learning plateaus.

Back in college, I remember getting really frustrated with my learning progress.

Sometimes my learning was fast and furious.  I was on fire.  Other times, it felt like learning was very painful and slow.

When it was slow, it seemed super slow, as if it wasn’t happening at all.

And, it seemed like I was just wasting my time, or worse, actually working against myself.

Cycles of Ups and Downs

But then, out of the blue, it was as if concepts and ideas suddenly connected and sank in, and then my pace of learning would be on fire again.

When I didn’t have a name for this cycle of ups and downs in the process of learning, the humps and hills that I hit, would hit me hard.

I didn’t know whether to keep going or to change my approach.

Then I came across an idea in a book, How To Study in College, by Walter Pauk, that helped me understand this process, and, in fact, embrace it.

I was in fact hitting “learning plateaus.”

Learning Plateaus: The “No Progress” Period

We can have periods of no perceptible progress.

Pauk writes:

“No two people learn at exactly the same rate, yet the learning patterns for most people are quite similar. 

We all experience lulls in our learning. 

Progress is usually slow and steady at first, then then for a period of time there might be no perceptible progress even though genuine effort is being put forth.  This “no progress’ period is called a plateau. 

After days, weeks, or even months of effort, suddenly a surprising spurt in learning occurs and continues until another plateau is reached.”

Consolidation and Synthesis Takes Time

The plateaus set the stages.  Basically, during our plateaus, we’re building a platform that future learning can stand on.

Pauk writes:

“A generally accepted explanation for the plateau is that the individual skills, the bits and pieces, must undergo consolidation. 

During the plateau period they are gradually combined into a more or less unified whole, and then the stage is set for another spurt in learning. 

Plateaus can occur at any time in the learning cycle, and they can have short or long durations.”

Don’t Lose Heart

You’re still learning quietly in the background, while you’re in your plateaus.

Pauk writes:

“When you reach a learning plateau, do not lose heart.  You may not see nay progress, but learning is going on nevertheless.  Once everything is in place, you’ll be rewarded for your effort.”

The most important idea here is to not lose heart.

When you expect the ups and downs, it’s easier to deal with the “Downs”, knowing that you are setting the stage for greater “Ups.”

What seems like its holding you back, is actually helping you forward.

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  1. Frederick Douglass sounds like a no fun guy.

    It is quite possible for learning to be pleasurable and fun. Perhaps not always, but there is nothing to lose by considering for a minute if what we are learning can be made more fun in some way.

    • He’s actually an entertaining writer. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now when I flip back through, he maintained a conversational and often jovial approach to the book (which could easily have been a standard, dry text-book.)

      I’m a fan of gamification. But ultimately what makes it “fun” for me is to boldly go where no one has gone before, or to learn something interesting and insightful that I can apply.

      I think what doesn’t work is raw memorization, but even that could be made fun through simple flash cards (and there’s plenty of apps now that do that.)

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