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What is Overlearning?

Many schools use overlearning to emphasize continued practice of mastered materials, such as memorizing a multiplication table.
Cramming is not the same as overlearning, as students who cram rarely retain the information for long.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2014
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Overlearning is the continued practice or study of material or a skill long after information or the skill has been mastered. If you were, for instance, studying your multiplication tables, or vocabulary for a foreign language, you would at some point master the material. With overlearning you continue to study mastered material so that it hopefully becomes automatic.

The practice of overlearning is used by many schools that emphasize continued practice of mastered materials, and also by many students. It is not analogous to cramming, which is studying a lot of material the night before a test. Yet there are some similarities particularly in the academic setting. Once material has been learned, overlearned material may not be retained for a school year or a lifetime. When you cram for tests, you may be able to do slightly better on tests, but your retention of the material may not exist for weeks or months after you’ve taken the test.

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To address this pedagogical focus in schools, many schools instead work on not only learning material, but also referring back to it as a class or school year progresses. By referring back to learned material and incorporating old material into new lessons, some new studies, especially one by the University of Southern Florida conducted in 2005, suggest students are more likely to retain material. This practice that some schools and teachers are now employing is called distributed learning. Even if you are being taught in a more linear mode, particularly at the college or high school level, reviewing your notes a few times a week can help you retain the information you’ve already been tested on. This could be an effective strategy if you will take cumulative tests at the end of semester or at a school year’s end.

There is a place for traditional overlearning. It may prove especially useful if you have anxiety while taking tests. Having automatic answers at your disposal can help make a student feel more confident when he or she tests. Overlearning is a frequently used tool by people who make speeches, or who must perform in any way to an audience.

A violinist doesn’t stop learning a piece he or she will perform once it’s initially mastered. The violinist instead keeps practicing that piece so that it is automatic and there is little possibility of forgetting it when performing in front of a large crowd. Similarly, actors, dancers, and other musicians may calm the jitters by overlearning their parts, and may actually improve their performance by continuing to practice beyond initial memorization of lines, steps or moves, or musical notes.

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seag47
Post 6

@Oceana - Many students don’t realize that overlearning is so much more efficient than cramming. In college, I had friends who would down energy drinks and cram all night before a test, and they still wouldn’t get an above average grade on it, because they didn’t have the information stored in the right part of their brains.

They remembered enough of it to get a C at best. I did not want to be a victim of the late night cram session, so I had made it a point to review my notes and old tests once a week. I was determined to graduate with honors.

I guess the difference between myself and those who crammed was that they did not care too much about having an excellent GPA. They were there to party and get a degree.

Oceana
Post 5

Overlearning was the only way I got through my history class in my first semester of college. The professor wanted us to be able to remember dates and names for the pop quizzes that we would have during each class, so I had to study like crazy for these.

The big test of my knowledge came at midterm, though. I would have to have half a semester’s worth of information in my brain at one time, but since I had studied it several times throughout the semester, it wasn’t that big of an issue for me.

Other kids were freaking out, because they had put this information on their brains’ backburners, but I was so glad that I had been reviewing it periodically. I aced the test, and it was the hardest we had been given to that date.

Perdido
Post 4

I have a lot of admiration for actors who memorize all their parts for plays. I don’t know how they do it, but I imagine that overlearning plays a big part in their ability to retain the memories.

I had a small part in a play in elementary school, and I practiced it every day for a month before the actual play took place. I only had two lines, but I knew that they might easily escape me once I stood up in front of a crowd.

So, even at a young age and of my own accord, I did some overlearning without knowing what it was called. My lines became my mantra for that month, and I even dreamed about them at times. When the time came to say them on stage, I was ready and confident.

orangey03
Post 3

I practice overlearning with songs on the piano. Even though I write my own songs, it is possible to forget them if I go for weeks or months without playing them. So, I try to practice all of them at least once a month, if not more frequently.

If I will be performing them live in the near future, I practice them every day. Some people might think this is overdoing it, but I think it is essential. I have a slight amount of stage fright, so it is absolutely vital that I know my songs inside and out.

Overlearning burns my songs into my brain to the point that they become second nature. It is hard to forget what is ever present.

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