Want to shorten the learning curve? Try ‘overlearning’
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Want to shorten the learning curve? Try ‘overlearning’

You can teach learners a complex skill relatively quickly. But to get them to master it takes time.

In most cases, you’ll have to conduct regular follow-up, including: coaching, revisiting the learning concept, and practice sessions.

Is there a way to speed up the process? A recent study suggests there is: Have trainees “overlearn” up front.

The research

The study, conducted by researchers from Drexel University, took place in a medical school. Medical students were divided into two groups and taught a common surgical procedure.

Group One, the control group, learned the procedure and practiced it until they achieved proficiency – meaning they scored at least 80 percent on a surgical simulator.

Group Two, the overlearning group, achieved proficiency and kept right on practicing – ultimately practicing twice as much as Group One.

The researchers then reassessed both groups four weeks and twelve weeks later. The overlearning group largely maintained their proficiency, averaging 76 percent on the simulator – compared to the control group’s 68 percent. What’s more, the overlearning group completed the procedure 20 percent faster than the control group.

The researchers concluded that overlearning at the initial learning stage leads to higher knowledge retention and therefore less time spent revisiting or practicing the skill later.

The lead researcher concluded that by “using this approach of overlearning, we make people work a little harder initially, but as our study shows, we can actually decrease the learning curve this way.”

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Check for understanding. After you deliver the learning concept, use an assessment to check learners’ understanding. Provide quick and customized feedback to your learners. This will close knowledge gaps and correct any misunderstandings that could prolong the learning curve.

Practice, practice, practice. Practice is a vital part of the learning process. Provide multiple opportunities to rehearse new skills and techniques so they get solidified in learners’ memories. And by observing practice sessions, you can identify trainees’ weak points and focus the practice on those.

Don’t stop at proficiency. Practice isn’t over just because learners get it right once. Keep reinforcing and practicing new skills until they start to become second nature. Otherwise, the study suggests, your training efforts will begin to slip away more quickly.

Marcucci, V., et al. (2015). Overlearning enhances skill retention in a simulated model of laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 221(4), e74.

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