The Learning Plateau

6 August 2020


A common mistake we make when visualizing the learning process is thinking that skills are learnt in a linear fashion or in an even progression of improvement. For example, if someone is learning to play golf and their handicap decreases by five shots over six months, it might be assumed that in 18 months the handicap will be reduced by a further 15 strokes.

However the way we learn skills is far more complicated and the rate of improvement follows different patterns, quite often ebbing and flowing with periods of rapid improvement followed by ‘learning plateaus’. Furthermore, the rate of improvement is usually greatest at the beginning of a new activity which provides strong initial motivation to keep going but also unrealistic expectations of future ability.

What is the ‘Learning Plateau’?

Plateaus are simply periods where the student/learner shows little or no sign of measurable improvement, despite continued practice. Depending on the activity, this can be where the body is developing new neural pathways, or building the required coordination or strength to progress the learner to a new level of competence or ability. Daniel Coyle, in his book ‘The Talent Code’, explains beautifully that during these times the body is laying sheaths of myelin around nerves which speed up the rate our body performs instructions given by the brain.

Learning is an extremely complicated combination of internal neural, nervous and muscular interaction and relationships. The process of ‘myelination’ is how we learn everything from speaking to playing basketball and is so complex that sometimes we can practice without feeling as though we are getting better.

The Problem

So why is the Learning Plateau a potential problem? It comes down to motivation and expectations. A big part of being a great teacher/mentor/coach is anticipating the emotional challenges your learner will go through and be able to help handle difficult times. There is nothing hard about guiding a student who is bursting with enthusiasm during a period when they can feel themselves rapidly improving each day. The challenge for the teacher is when that improvement slows or stops altogether and doubt starts to creep in about the process or even the worthwhileness of the activity.

The Solution

All coaches who become masters understand and have experienced these inevitable ups and downs in motivation. They are able to maintain their students’ enthusiasm and reassure them that this is a normal part of the process, even giving examples of others who went through the same experience. The novice teacher will begin looking for quick fixes or things to blame when the emotional highs start to wane during the ‘Learning Plateau’, instead of educating and explaining what is really going on. As Daniel Coyle explains, true masters such as John Wooden begin focusing on the small, controllable aspects of practice which they know over time will lead to improvement. It is also helpful for teachers to keep in mind that some activities have different variables which can alter the learning rate or can change day to day performance. Learning musical instruments will generally follow a different path than learning how to play poker for example.