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Suppose someone doesn't often learn things thoroughly. Over the time, that creates problems for learning further.

I was wondering if this situation can be expressed properly by:

It is/creates a vicious cycle.

It is/creates a downward spiral.

Or what do you often say for such cases?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Depending on your intended meaning. "Downward spiral" and "vicious cycle" are both used to described degeneration of some sort, but there is a slight difference in meaning.

A "vicious cycle" is defined as

"one trouble leads to another that aggravates the first"

Which is applicable in your case, as his bad learning creates problems that prevent him learning properly in future, etc.

However, a "downward spiral", as defined by Wiktionary, is

"1.A series of thoughts or actions which feeds back into itself, causing a situation to become progressively worse. It is worse than a vicious circle, which is self-sustaining in its current state.

That is, a "vicious cycle" doesn't seem to get anyworse, it just goes around and around in a repetition. But a downward spiral is a progressive degeneration phenomenon.

Depending on the context of your situation, you would use one or the other. For me, just from looking at the example you have given, I would use "vicious cycle", as he doesn't seem to be descending into a worse state other than not learning properly.

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Good distinction: downward spirals get progressively worse, while vicious cycles merely refuse to improve. The difference is subtle yet valid. – J.R. Mar 7 '12 at 2:56
Good points! But you could still describe this situation as a downward spiral. From the educator's point of view, a 10th grader who cannot read is worse than a 4th grader who cannot read. – J.R. Mar 7 '12 at 3:25
@J.R. that's true. It all depends on context. – Bidella Mar 7 '12 at 4:17

We most often say vicious circle (vicious cycle doesn't mean anything different, it's just a less-common variant). Downward spiral, which is even less common, is usually restricted to a person's mental health (often, depression) deteriorating because their condition makes it more likely they will do things (poor social interaction, drug abuse, etc.) that make them get worse.

enter image description here

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I believe downward spiral has aviation roots, and is similar in meaning to the phrase stuck in a tailspin. (See NGram below; both expressions rose to prominence during the expansion of aviation).

It can certainly be used to describe deteriorating health, but the expression can also be applied to other areas, such as economics, morality, marriage, or education:

Portugal seems safe from the sort of downward spiral experienced by Greece, whose economic recession has been exacerbated by austerity measures. (Wall Street Journal, 2/28/2012)

In any case, both metaphors (downward spiral, vicious cycle) are used to describe when a small set of problems cause a situation to perpetually deteriorate. Indeed, either could be applied to the situation you described, such as when students are passed from one grade level to the next, without having learned fundamental concepts, making it even harder for them to cope or learn at the next level.

enter image description here

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