Edit: Since I haven't received any responses/comments in a week, I'd like to add that I'm happy to hear anything about the problem. I don't work in the area, so even if it's a simple observation, I may not know it. Even a comment like "I work in the area, but I haven't seen a characterization like this" would be helpful!
There are several well-studied models of learning in learning theory (e.g., PAC learning, online learning, exact learning with membership/equivalence queries).
For example, in PAC learning, the sample complexity of a concept class has a nice combinatorial characterization in terms of the VC dimension of the class. So if we want to learn a class with constant accuracy and confidence, this can be done with $\Theta(d)$ samples, where $d$ is the VC dimension. (Note that we're talking about sample complexity, not time complexity.) There is also a more refined characterization in terms of the accuracy and confidence. Similarly, the mistake bound model of online learning has a nice combinatorial characterization.
I want to know if a similar result is known for the model of exact learning with membership queries. The model is defined as follows: We have access to a black box which on input $x$ gives you $f(x)$. We know $f$ comes from some concept class $C$. We want to determine $f$ with as few queries as possible.
Is there a combinatorial parameter of a concept class $C$ that characterizes the number of queries needed to learn a concept in the model of exact learning with membership queries?
What I know:
The best such characterization I have found is in this paper by Servedio and Gortler, using a parameter they attribute to Bshouty, Cleve, Gavaldà, Kannan and Tamon. They define a combinatorial parameter called $\gamma^C$, where $C$ is the concept class, which has the following properties. (Let $Q_C$ be the optimal number of queries needed to learn $C$ in this model.)
$Q_C = \Omega(1/\gamma^C)\qquad Q_C = \Omega(\log |C|) \qquad Q_C = O(\log |C|/\gamma^C)$
This characterization is almost tight. However, there could be a quadratic gap between the upper and lower bounds. For example if $1/\gamma^C = \log |C| = k$, then the lower bound is $\Omega(k)$, but the upper bound is $O(k^2)$. (I also think this gap is achievable, i.e., there exists a concept class for which the lower bounds are both $\Omega(k)$, but the upper bound is $O(k^2)$.)