- Blog post
Overlearning: Help your learners lock in learning (and make sure they don’t forget it completely)
Your learners seem to have mastered a new skill or concept. Mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.
Recent research suggests that there’s a critical phase in the learning process – a moment where learners can lock in what they’ve learned… or forget it completely. And knowing how to handle this moment can make a big difference in your workplace learning program.
A recent study from researchers at Brown University illuminates a previously overlooked but critically important moment in the learning process. Specifically, the study looks at how practicing beyond the point of mastery — what the researchers call overlearning — affects learning.
The researchers divided the subjects into two groups: the overlearning group and the control group. Both groups engaged in a visual perception task. To start, both groups completed eight brief practice sessions, which was the point where people generally showed demonstrable proficiency at the task.
After both groups showed they had mastered the task, the control group went on to practice a different exercise. The overlearning group, however, stuck with the original task, performing another eight practice sessions and doubling the control group’s practice on the initial task. After this, the overlearners moved on to the second task as well.
The next day, both groups were tested on both tasks. The overlearning group showed a 20 percent improvement on the original task — the task they’d overlearned.
The control group bombed the first test. It was as if they had never learned it at all. On the second test, however, the control group did rather well, while the over-learners showed only a minor improvement.
What’s going on?
First off, “overlearning” appears to pay off — the group that kept practicing even after they demonstrated proficiency seemed to lock in the skill. But for the control group, who’d also appeared to master the skill at first, retained nothing.
Because when “you stop training on a new skill immediately after you’ve mastered it, the area of the brain related to the skill is still plastic,” said a lead researcher. “But if you overlearn the skill, your brain state changes very rapidly from being plastic to being stable.”
In short, the earlier you stop practicing, the more fragile the retention can be. That extra practice for the over-learners helped solidify what they had learned. But for the control group, their brains were still locking in the first task — still “plastic” — when they were asked to learn a second, completely different task. Because this second task interrupted their learning process at a critical moment, the outocome was as if they had never learned the first task to begin with.
As for the second task, the control group performed well on their test because they were able to form better memories of the second task — their learning process wasn’t interrupted. And while the overlearners didn’t perform as well on the second test, their overlearning shielded them from forgetting what they’d learned during the first task.
After reviewing the results of this first study, the researchers wanted to know if they could uncover neurological evidence for how overlearning helps lock in new skills. So they repeated the study, only this time they gave brain scans to the subjects before and after their practice sessions. And what they found validated their conclusions about overlearning.
The control group was found to have more of a chemical called glutamate active in their brains. Glutamate aids learning by making your brain more “plastic” and more susceptible to learning. Overlearning, however, seemed to gradually decrease the amount of glutamate and increase the amount of GABA, a chemical that helps stabilize the brain.
So while the initial learning and practice sessions might signal to the brain, “Hey, let’s jot this down and see if we need it,” overlearning seems to signal to the brain, “This is important; let’s lock up this information in a safe place.”
Here are some research-based recommendations for how to apply this research in your organization.
Improvement is just the first step.
Just because learners show improvement or even mastery doesn’t mean that the learning process is over. To really lock in learning and protect it against other competing information, learners need to devote more time to practice and review — even when they show proficiency.
Learners in the workplace can find themselves battling a number of distractions, such as doing their job, for example. These competing priorities can rob learners of new skills, even ones they thought they had mastered. So be sure that your workplace learning program prioritizes practice and refreshes learners on important topics – maybe even to the point of overlearning. At times it might feel like overkill, but the research suggests it will lock in learning.
Keep your learning experiences focused on a single topic.
In the study, the control group performed poorly because they quickly moved on to a second task. And you can see how this could happen in the workplace learning context: Too many topics are covered in one learning session, which then makes it difficult for learners to retain all that they’ve learned.
Instead, consider keeping each learning experience focused on a single, clearly defined topic or concept. Once that concept has been absorbed by the learners, give them ample time to discuss it, ask questions and practice. New skills need the requisite time and effort to sink in and solidify.
Practice makes perfect.
It’s a cliche for a reason. It’s not enough for learners simply to understand a new skill. To retain it and apply it in their daily work, they need to practice, practice, practice. Significant (over)practice will not only ensure mastery but will help protect learners’ newly acquired skills against stress, pressure and subsequent learning.
Shibata, K., et al. (2017). Overlearning hyperstabilizes a skill by rapidly making neurochemical processing inhibitory-dominant. Nature Neuroscience, 20(3), 470.