Skip to main content

TrueLearn Data Lab: Understanding & Utilizing Your Learning Curve

Tuesday, November 19, 2019
By The TrueLearn Team

In the months and weeks leading up to your exam, time is at a premium. That’s why it’s so critical you find ways to maximize your study efforts en route to a solid exam performance.

At TrueLearn, we frequently get questions and requests to help our users develop the best studying strategy for their particular learning style. The first step in doing so is understanding the “learning curve” and how it relates to you.

What is the Learning Curve?

learning curve can be represented by a line graph showing the rate at which learning (knowledge) is acquired over experience (time or events like practice questions). Everyone has their own unique learning curve which is based on the subject you are studying, the method you are studying, the mood you are in, and even how rested you are.

Image 1 - Learning Curve

Your individual learning curve essentially indicates the rate of learned expertise. If the subject is difficult to learn or you are trying to learn the material while lacking sleep, your learning curve will become longer and will require more time and practice events to master. This fact translates directly to performing well on high-stakes board exams. We see that based on the number of practice questions people take and the time they invest preparing for high-stakes exams, the better they perform.

Let’s look at the data to tell us what an average medical student’s learning curve looks like. Here is the learning profile of a sample of our users in COMLEX Level 1.

Learning Curve by Unique Questions Taken in COMLEX Level 1

“Learning” for our purposes can be considered the percentage correct for new questions taken for the first time. In this data set there are over 4,000 users attempting over 2,000 unique questions, and the average score for this set of students is recorded in buckets for every 100 new unique questions taken.


This indicates that the average percentage improvement per 1,000 questions taken = 4.1 percent. Therefore, if a student takes all 2,400 unique COMLEX Level 1 practice questions exactly one time, they can expect an average score increase of 9.8 percent.

While this analysis was based on students preparing for the  COMLEX Level 1, this improvement rate of 4 percent per 1,000 questions was found to be consistent across prior years of data and was similar to the improvement rates seen in users of other TrueLearn products preparing for other exams.

Average Number of Unique Questions Taken Based on User Start Date

We learned from the previous section that the more questions you take, the better you perform. Therefore in order to maximize the benefits, you should try to take more unique questions. In this section, we divide users into three groups based on the date they started taking practice questions and look at the average number of unique questions taken by each group.

Image 3 - Earlier Start, More Practice Question

We see students who start taking practice questions earlier take a larger volume of questions. Students that “cram” tend to complete fewer questions than students that start early, which is equivalent to leaving points towards a higher exam score on the table.

If you start taking practice questions at least six months prior to exam, then you will most likely complete nearly 700 more questions than waiting to start three months or less before exam, which is desirable for increasing the gains from attempting the questions as shown in the previous section.


This analysis is based on the latest 2016 data, although the results are consistent with 2015 and earlier years’ data, and is generally consistent across all other exam products we provide. Whether you are preparing for the COMLEX Level 1, a Board exam for your specialty or an In-Training exam, keep these thoughts in mind:

  1. If you start your test preparation early (at least six months before your exam) and take all the unique questions,  you will maximize your average score performance.
  2. At the very least you should take 300 unique questions to get the benefit of the steep improvement ramp that we see at the beginning of the performance learning curve, which gives the user the biggest “improvement per question taken.”
  3. Although students and physicians who start taking questions early usually take more unique practice questions in total and perform better than those who wait to take questions, the bigger component is that you do take the question. If you are a crammer there is still hope. Even if you have waited until the end of your study cycle, those who take more unique questions, even if it is over a cramming period leading up to the exam, perform better than those who do not work to maximize the number of questions they take.
  4. If you take all of the questions in your Qbank, on average you can expect to improve your percentage correct score by nearly 10 percent when compared to not taking any questions at all.