Should students be overlearning?

//Should students be overlearning?

In my last post I outlined my concerns with the idea of ‘thinking hard’ being a good proxy for learning. Briefly, thinking hard about a problem appears to be an inefficient way to alter long-term memory structures. This means that it’s perfectly possible to struggle with a difficult exercise, successfully complete it, and still not have learned how to repeat the process independently. The problem is that ‘thinking hard’ exhausts limited working memory reserves.

In fact – as Daisy Christodoulou states in Making Good Progress? – the evidence on ‘overlearning’ seems to suggest that repeating a task to the point where almost no thought is required in its completion is a better way to change long-term memory:

Overlearning refers to the continued practice on a task after some criterion of mastery on that task has been achieved. A pianist, for example, might continue to practice a piece despite already being able to perform it. (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2013)

Way back in 1929, WCF Krueger showed that overlearning can represent considerable advantages in retention. Subjects were divided into two groups and given a list of words to learn. The first group practised learning the words to the point of mastery – i.e. to the point where they would reliably score 100% on a test – whereas the second group overlearned the list, studying for twice as long as the mastery group. While both groups’ performance was equally good immediately after the period of study, the overlearning group showed much greater retention on a long-term test. In a later study, Krueger showed that long-term performance increases in line with the amount of overlearning during practice: more overlearning equals better retention.

This same effect has been shown to hold true for meaningful prose (Gilbert 1957) as well as motor skills (Adams & Reynolds 1954 and Stelmach 1969). The importance of continuing practice beyond the point where performance no longer seems to improve is well established. Building on this early research, James Driskell and colleagues confirmed the beneficial effects of overlearning across a range of domains and drew the following conclusions:

  1. Although overlearning is beneficial for both cognitive and physical tasks, there was significantly greater benefit in cognitive tasks.
  2. Overlearning material by both 100% and 150% produced ‘strong to moderate’ improvements.
  3. The benefits of overlearning appeared to decrease over time, so that with a delay of 19 days between overlearning and testing resulted in performance falling by as much as 50%. However, if further overlearning were to take place approximately 3 weeks after the first session, improvements were maintained.

This last finding is consistent with what we know about spaced instruction: what we learn is prone to a decay in retrieval strength without topping up on what we have learned.

All of this needs to be filtered through the research on developing expertise. In his wonderfully useful book Peak, K Anders Ericsson, the pre-eminent researcher in the field, has written about the need for both ‘purpose practice’ – practice with the express aim of improving performance – and developing effective ‘mental representations’ of what success looks like.

Purposeful practice

At first glance the guidance on practice seems to contradict these findings about overlearning. Ericsson is clear that the gains from further practice start to disappear when we enter the ‘autonomous stage’ of skill development. Practice only seems to confer improvements to performance when we are in the ‘cognitive stage’ which forces us to concentrate on what we’re doing and be mindful of our performance. However, even though overlearning – practising beyond mastery to the point of automaticity – results in performance plateauing, my suggestion would be that future practice should attempt to overlearn beyond the point of our current ability. If we continue to raise the bar, overlearning should continue to be beneficial.

Mental representations

The idea of having a clear idea of what expert performance is like is crucial. If we practice without knowing what good looks like, we have no internal frame of reference to provide us with feedback on whether we’re making progress. This means that we’re dependent on someone else for this feedback. I’ve argued before that giving feedback can often have a detrimental effect on long-term learning and this is why. The benefits of overlearning may in part be due to creating an increasingly familiar sense of what effortless performance should feel like. If we only practice up to the point of mastery we may not have much experience of what mastery is like, but practising beyond this point could give us that sense of what it must be like to be an expert.

The implications of all of this is that rather than continually raising the bar and expecting students to contend with ever more complex challenges, perhaps we should allow considerably more time for consolidation before moving on to more difficult material. For instance, instead of giving young children increasingly demanding reading books every time they finish one, perhaps we should get them to continue to practise reading their book beyond the point at which they’re fluent, allowing them to enjoy the experience of reading without effort. As well as the potential benefits to retention, I think this approach is also likely to improve students’ motivation and enjoyment.

2017-01-12T21:28:45+00:00

26 Comments

  1. Harry Fletcher-Wood January 12, 2017 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. Presumably there’s a balance to be struck between the value of overlearning and the disadvantages of continuing practising something which we have already mastered (that is, mastered for now, allowing for the fact that we will have forgotten much of it in due course) – which no longer challenges us?

    Putting this idea another way, the mental representations we want students to develop rely on their seeing a variety of cases (answering a variety of questions, knowing which rules to apply in which circumstances and so on). Continuing to practice beyond initial mastery is crucial, but so is varying the practice, to develop the broader representations (and semantic memory) we need in the longer term.

    • David Didau January 12, 2017 at 5:42 pm - Reply

      I think the balance will have something to do with opportunity cost: when will the benefits overlearning be outweighed by the cost of not covering new content?

    • Maria B Hurtig January 12, 2017 at 6:14 pm - Reply

      Vary content key factor.

    • sarkari naukri January 13, 2017 at 10:13 am - Reply

      I agree With you

  2. @SteveTeachPhys January 12, 2017 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    In these authors’ opinions overlearning is just another term for massed practice which spaced practice always trumps http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED505642.pdf

    • David Didau January 12, 2017 at 7:31 pm - Reply

      I’m not understanding why overlearning can’t be spaced?

      • Brian January 16, 2017 at 3:50 pm - Reply

        I was having this thought also.

        We space practice so that as retention falls we increase and reinforce it that is each time we push it towards 100%.

        Overlearning pushes it well over 100% so that when it falls it is still over 100%.

        This is my take.

        I would be interested to know whether recall and/or recognition are both subject to the overlearning effect equally ie. cued recall and free recall.

  3. Maria B Hurtig January 12, 2017 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Interesting. I appreciate this perspective. Makes me think of “10 000 hrs” ..

  4. missdcox January 12, 2017 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Could you please clarify if you’re including repeating exactly the same thing that students already know? I.e the same book or the exact same sum?

    • David Didau January 12, 2017 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      The research has mainly investigated overlearning the same small domain of content, but I would imagine that in the case of maths, for instance, overlearning quadratic equations would involve repeating lots of different equations

      • missdcox January 13, 2017 at 8:55 am - Reply

        So when students say ‘We’ve already done this’, this is a good thing for overlearning? And if true, we need to explain this to them.

  5. Martyn Nesbitt January 12, 2017 at 8:36 pm - Reply

    Does the research show how this would apply to situations which are not limited to factual recall or repetition of the same task such as in maths to master a skill? I am thinking of subject areas where students are required to write more extended answers which demonstrate understanding or critically evaluate different ideas.

    • David Didau January 12, 2017 at 9:19 pm - Reply

      The overlearning research doesn’t show this but the the research into practice and expertise suggests that expert performance looks very different from the process of practising to be an expert. So, for instance, while writing extended answers is want we students to do, practising writing extended answers is not the best way to improve. I really recommend Daisy Christodoulou’s new book to explore this idea more fully.

  6. P Teacher January 12, 2017 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    May I say I think this is brilliant. As a teacher we are always told to move the children on when to my mind it is clear that overlearning is often required. Extrapolating from my own situation as a poor but dedicated piano player I realise that overlearning is what my brain needs. Plus that mastery is a fluid concept. There are myriad interpretations of playing a piece well. It’s just a shame that the current curriculum focuses on ‘moving the children on’ rather than the processes of learning. An ex head of mine told us in staff training that if the children had forgotten something we hadn’t taught it properly. Now if you could just get Ofsted to believe this idea things might actually start to change…

    • David Didau January 13, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

      Ofsted aren’t the problem. I really think the recent guidance to inspectors and schools is clear: you can’t see learning. My prediction is that Ofsted will stop judging T&L within two years.

      The problem is school leadership which has no understanding of learning. Your ex head sounds great!

  7. Rufus January 13, 2017 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    Mental schemas, mental structures and long-term memory structures: these seem to me to be what you think is key for learning. Do you use the terms synonymously?

    • David Didau January 13, 2017 at 2:17 pm - Reply

      Pretty much, yes. Also: mental models. I like ‘metal representations’ as it’s the term Ericsson has now adopted. Good rationale for this in Peak.

  8. Mr D Haigh (@MrDHaigh) January 13, 2017 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Nice blog, which fits well with my experience as a learner and teacher. I often think that the time algebraic skills become embedded properly is when I move on from teaching algebra to using it to do something more difficult like solve problems or do calculus. The algebra has to become automatic at this stage in order to allow our limited processing capacity to deal with the new learning, but often the frequent practice that they get in the basics through doing the harder stuff irons out the small issues in algebra. Same goes for language e.g. – the repeated retrieval practice I get on Duolingo means that I don’t think consciously about verb endings, they just become natural.

  9. Brian January 16, 2017 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    I know you are a fan of opportunity cost David and of course the concept can be useful. My belief is that the concept is of limited use in education generally but that is another issue.

    Of course a lot hinges on the way that terms such as mastery are used and also the object to which mastery refers. I am unsure as to whether overlearning should be applied at the level of the isolated fact, the concept, the procedure, the meta procedure etc.

    We all know the amount of time and practice required for “mastery” and I am not sure there is time to master everything even if we wanted to. Are we to consider the opportunity cost of learning a particular specialist vocabulary term against learning another. Are we to try to think about the opportunity cost of one small cognitive process against 16 key terms.

    Any learners that I have come across have almost without exception found it difficult to achieve the level of performance to achieve and A* at A level across the breadth of content required. The idea that somehow my learners should be overlearning everything when they can achieve an A* without doing so seems to me to be illogical.

    I could spend the whole year teaching a single term/concept to the point that the poor buggers know it so well that they dream of applications of the knowledge but I can’t see the point.

    I can see that this might be a very useful are of knowledge when training people to fly airplanes or carry out complex operations etc but for learning in school I think the thing is largely academic.

    • David Didau January 16, 2017 at 8:30 pm - Reply

      “The idea that somehow my learners should be overlearning everything when they can achieve an A* without doing so seems to me to be illogical. ” – illogical and a straw man 🙂

  10. Adam January 20, 2017 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    I would argue that overlearning – within reason – is just as important a part of the learning process as the steps taken to reach ‘mastery’. Whilst practice makes perfect, once perfection is achieved the only way to stay perfect is to keep on working on your skills. Indeed, you don’t see Olympic gold medallists stop working on their abilities once they’ve won a gold medal.

    • David Didau January 20, 2017 at 4:36 pm - Reply

      No. although the ‘curriculum’ of the Olympic gold medalist is not at all similar to that offered in schools.

  11. Very interesting.. it’s useful for me.
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  12. […] of initial mastery aids long term retention. (see this blog for a useful overview of overlearning: https://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/should-students-be-overlearning/ […]

  13. […] or not, benefits from lots of knowledge and lots of practice explaining and exploring it. Overlearning is a term that was coined a long time ago but is still relevant today. If we want our students, […]

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