Is Overlearning The Secret to Learning?

The secret to learning is not to stop

At some point we’ve all struggled to learn something new. Have you felt confident that you learned something only to find the next day that the information did not sink in? Overlearning may be the key, but it’s so powerful that it has unexpected side-effects!

The Problem With Learning

Researchers at Brown University wondered what it took for information to properly bed-in. Previous research showed that learning similar skills could interfere with each other. So, if you try to learn two similar subjects too fast, the second subject tends to affect what you remember about the first.

Even though you feel like you’ve mastered a subject, learning something similar too soon can mean you don’t remember the first subject in the coming days. The second subject “overwrites” your memory of the first.

The Brown University researchers wanted to find a way to make sure that the first subject not only “sinks in” but stays sunk.

The Problem With Learning

Over one hundred and eighty volunteers were tested on their learning experiences. They were shown images that either contained a pattern orientation or were just random “noise”.  First, each person tried to identify the images without any training.

Then they all learned how to tell them apart in short rounds of training and practice. The researchers call these rounds of training “blocks”. Eight blocks in total were required to learn the task.

Divided into two groups, the subjects set about learning the new skill. The first group trained for eight blocks, enough to master the task. After a 30 minute break, they then learned a similar skill for another eight blocks.

The second group learned for sixteen blocks. Twice the amount of effort required for learning the new skill. This is the overlearning bit. They also had a 30 minute break before learning the second, similar, skill for eight blocks.

The next day both groups were tested.

The learners in group one did well when tested in the second skill. However, they were poor at performing the first skill. It seems that learning the second similar skill overwrote some of their mastery of the first. Previous research suggests that this was to be expected.

Mastering Skills One At A Time

The second group’s results were very interesting.  They had retained the first overlearned skill better than the first group. But, they showed no significant improvement at the second skill. It was as if they had not been trained in it at all!

To find out why, the researchers repeated the experiment with new volunteers. This time they had a break of three and a half hours between learning the new skills. This time both groups showed improvements in both skills. The longer break stopped the second skill from interfering with the mastery of the first.

A third set of experiments involved magnetic resonance spectroscopy scanners to peek into the subjects’ brains. They looked at two brain chemicals, glutamate and GABA. High levels of glutamate compared to GABA means that what you learn makes real changes in your brain. But your brain is so plastic that learning other stuff can overwrite your new skill.

When glutamate levels are lower in ratio with GAMA, the opposite happens. Your brain becomes set and new connections are less likely to form. Overlearning increases the ratio of GABA to glutamate – locking in the learned skill and inhibiting new learning.

The 3.5 hour break allows the glutamate and GABA levels to normalize.

How to make sure what you learn stays learned!Click To Tweet

The Hidden Power Of Overlearning

If you want to learn something very important, maybe overlearning is a good way. If you do overlearning, you may be able to increase the chance that what you learn will not be gone – Takeo Watanabe, Brown University

Learning leads to changes in the brain. Unfortunately, just learning something is not enough to make sure that it stays learned! Learning any-subject-102 too soon after any-subject-101 means that we don’t remember any-subject-101 as well. However if we keep on learning any-subject-101 for longer than the time needed to learn it, we lock it in. In fact, we lock it in so well that we won’t remember any-subject-102 if we try to learn it too quickly!

So, if you want to master something – really set it in concrete in your brain, then don’t stop when you think you have learned it. Keep learning, keep practicing, answer more questions and do more exercises. Then take a long break, because you ain’t learning anything new soon!

How To Learn Effectively

Of course, this was a small study on pretty specific types of tasks. However, the researchers are confident that they hold true for all types of learning.

So how can you use this to your advantage?

Timing is very important when studying. The Brown University study suggests the following tips :

  • “To cement training quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning … that follows immediately.”
  • “Without overlearning, don’t try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of learning will undermine the first.”
  • “If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.”

Overlearning can help you cement in those crucial skills much quicker and better. Practice really does make perfect.


Is Overlearning The Secret to Learning?
Article Name
Is Overlearning The Secret to Learning?
There's a newly discovered secret to learning a new skill. A secret that locks in the learning quicker and better than before. That secret is overlearning and this is how to do it.
Dermot Barry
  1. Orla ni hAodha 9th February 2017
    • Dermot Barry 10th February 2017
  2. Kai L 13th February 2017
  3. Natasha 3rd March 2017
    • Dermot Barry 3rd March 2017

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