Behavioural learning is mediated by cellular plasticity, such as changes in the strength of synapses at specific sites in neural circuits. The theory of cerebellar motor learning relies on movement errors signalled by climbing-fibre inputs to cause long-term depression of synapses from parallel fibres to Purkinje cells. However, a recent review has called into question the widely held view that the climbing-fibre input is an 'all-or-none' event. In anaesthetized animals, there is wide variation in the duration of the complex spike (CS) caused in Purkinje cells by a climbing-fibre input. Furthermore, the amount of plasticity in Purkinje cells is graded according to the duration of electrically controlled bursts in climbing fibres. The duration of bursts depends on the 'state' of the inferior olive and therefore may be correlated across climbing fibres. Here we provide a potential functional context for these mechanisms during motor learning in behaving monkeys. The magnitudes of both plasticity and motor learning depend on the duration of the CS responses. Furthermore, the duration of CS responses seems to be a meaningful signal that is correlated across the Purkinje-cell population during motor learning. We suggest that during learning, longer bursts in climbing fibres lead to longer-duration CS responses in Purkinje cells, more calcium entry into Purkinje cells, larger synaptic depression, and stronger learning. The same graded impact of instructive signals for plasticity and learning might occur throughout the nervous system.