Improving accuracy and temporal resolution of learning curve estimation for within- and across-session analysis
Estimation of learning curves is ubiquitously based on proportions of correct responses within moving trial windows. In this approach, it is tacitly assumed that learning performance is constant within the moving windows, which, however, is often not the case. In the present study we demonstrate that violations of this assumption lead to systematic errors in the analysis of learning curves, and we explored the dependency of these errors on window size, different statistical models, and learning phase. To reduce these errors for single subjects as well as on the population level, we propose adequate statistical methods for the estimation of learning curves and the construction of confidence intervals, trial by trial. Applied to data from a shuttle-box avoidance experiment with Mongolian gerbils, our approach revealed performance changes occurring at multiple temporal scales within and across training sessions which were otherwise obscured in the conventional analysis. The proper assessment of the behavioral dynamics of learning at a high temporal resolution clarified and extended current descriptions of the process of avoidance learning. It further disambiguated the interpretation of neurophysiological signal changes recorded during training in relation to learning.