One of the quotes that have actually changed the way I see the world is the following:
“An amateur practices until they can play it correctly, a professional practices until they can’t play it incorrectly.”
While this may seem intuitive, we often forget that principle and do the same thing that the amateur does. Personally, this is exactly how I used to study during college. I’d study the material to the point that I could solve a few problems correctly, and then stop. It’s no surprise that I often found myself unable to perform well when actually taking the exam on the particular subject.
We’ve all been there. What you need to do to change the way things play out, is to actually keep on practicing until you can’t get it wrong, the same way that a martial artist keeps practicing the most basic movements forever. And, to top things off, a recent study suggests that going even further is actually a shortcut that helps you lock in learning. This process is called overlearning.
What is overlearning?
Overlearning is the process of practicing or rehearsing beyond the point where you no longer improve. Despite having achieved proficiency in the skill at hand, you continue practicing at a similar level of difficulty. This process is especially valuable when you want to lock in your successful performance on the skill at hand.
Note that this process feels quite counter-intuitive when described like that. Nevertheless, despite how it feels, it has been proven to enhance the performance of a skill dramatically, especially when you are called to perform the skill under pressure.
Where should you apply overlearning?
First off, let’s clear this: Overlearning should not be applied to everything. As a process, it is most helpful for motor sequences, like sports and instruments, and less helpful for cognitive skills, like math. Nevertheless, it could be useful in everything if utilized correctly, so let’s see a few examples where overlearning can actually make a difference:
It’s very common to see the best players in the world practicing their free throws. What you might not know is that most of these players have a near-perfect accuracy in free throws when practicing. The reason they keep doing it is to actually train their muscle memory and lock in the particular skill. That way, when under the huge pressure of a match, they can still perform at an amazing level of accuracy.
For the exact same reasons, you can find the same pattern in various other motor-type skill professionals, like dancers, martial artists, violinists, etc.
b) Public speaking
Another great area to apply overlearning to is public speaking. You may be surprised to learn that for a standard 15-minute TED talk, most speakers practice in the range of 70 hours. Overlearning your talking points by practicing your talk multiple times allows you to perform well under the pressure of the actual talk. It also makes the actual speech more of an automated process, and gives you space to focus on things like your body language and interacting with your audience.
A very similar application of overlearning is in acting. Actors consistently practice way beyond the point where they’ve memorized their lines, in order to act in the most natural way possible during the actual play/shoot.
While math (and other cognitive skills) are not the best area to apply overlearning to, there are some critical aspects of it where you certainly need to apply overlearning. For instance, if you want to be able to do multiplication in an instant, you need to overlearn. By locking in the knowledge, you can then allow your brain to make the process automatic.
If you are older, and still working with math, the same is true for subjects like factoring an equation. The deeper you get into math, the more important it becomes to overlearn stuff like this, in order to be able to quickly understand and solve problems.
The science behind overlearning
Decrease in energy expenditure
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, assistant professor Alaa Ahmed and two of her colleagues from UC of Colorado asked study subjects to move a cursor on a screen by manipulating a robotic arm. In the beginning, as the subjects became better at the task, the muscle activity declined, as expected. But that’s not all there is to it.
The most surprising finding was that energy expenditures continued to decrease, even after the decline in muscle activity had stabilized. In fact, the study reports that this is when the biggest reduction in metabolic power was observed, and this is when both the observer and the subject feel like nothing is happening.
By the end of the learning process, the subjects needed approximately 20% less energy to perform the task than when they started.
It is theorized that the extra reduction comes from the brain load necessary to perform the task. As the brain becomes more efficient in performing the task, it expends less energy to do so. This allows the brain to focus on more things, as it has more resources available, for example, to pay more attention to an opponent during a martial arts match.
“The message from this study is that, in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned,” says Ahmed. “We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”
Overlearning interferes with subsequent learning
This recent study explored the effects of overlearning in relevance to any subsequent learning. As the study reports, “usually, learning immediately after training is so unstable that it can be disrupted by subsequent new learning until after passive stabilization occurs hours later”. What the study discovered, though, is that the group that overlearned the task didn’t at all forget the task they overlearned, when they were called to perform it the next day.
In fact, they had learned it so deeply, that they were unable to perform the second, similar task they learned exactly after the first one. As the study reports: “However, overlearning so rapidly and strongly stabilizes the learning state that it not only becomes resilient against, but also disrupts, subsequent new learning”.
More than anything, this stands to show the amazing effect of overlearning on locking in what we practice. But you need to keep in mind that if you try to study something new exactly after overlearning, there is a great chance that you won’t be able to retain it, at all.
So, is there any way to train in more things that way? There is, but the study revealed that it takes more time. Participants who waited for several hours between training sessions retained both tasks and performed well the next day. After some research, that number seems to be close to 4 hours. Therefore, if you ever decide to use overlearning in your practice, take this into account. In fact, you could further improve how well you lock in the skill, by consciously devoting those hours to diffuse mode.
The audience effect
The audience effect is the tendency for people to perform differently when in the presence of others than when alone. It has been proven that we tend to perform better after we have overlearned something. When we haven’t achieved the reduction of energy expenditure that comes with overlearning, however, we are more likely to stumble when in the presence of others, especially if a task is complex.
The audience effect is something you can utilize to actually reach the next level. As soon as you’ve practiced to the point of overlearning, you can try to bring an audience to your practice, which will further refine your performance. As an example, you could start practicing your musical instruments in front of friends, instead of alone.
Things to be careful about
While overlearning can be very useful in your practice, it comes with a bunch of warnings. The most important one is that you must not overdo it. It’s very easy to turn overlearning into procrastination, if you keep practicing beyond the point where the energy expenditure decreases. In addition to that, if the sub-skill you are practicing is not particularly complex, it can create illusions of competence, where you think you are competent just because you are good at something easy.
Each one of us is different, so I can’t exactly tell you where to stop overlearning. Remember, not everything works for everyone the same way. The best way to optimize for yourself is to utilize deliberate practice in conjunction with overlearning. Instead of switching to more deliberate practice exactly when you feel like the task at hand becomes easy, continue practicing a bit further. Also, to avoid the interference with any subsequent learning, mix overlearning with interleaving, where you practice distinct skills.
Finally, be careful of the Einstellung effect. That is the process of trying to solve a problem or approach material from a specific angle, even though better methods or approaches exist. In order to avoid this, and the interference overlearning has over subsequent learning, you need to utilize diffuse mode, and to leave time after overlearning.
My best strategy to achieve this is to leave any subject I want to overlearn for the end of my studying session. That way I don’t have to actually optimize to avoid interference. I also combine overlearning with spaced repetition, by increasing the length of sessions. That way I take advantage of both the consolidation coming from spaced repetition, along with the lock-in coming from overlearning.
Overlearning is a great technique when you want to lock in your expertise on a skill, and/or to increase the mental effort necessary to perform it. Nevertheless, overlearning is a difficult concept in metalearning, and no one knows exactly to which level should it be utilized for optimal performance. If you are new to metalearning, I suggest starting with the more fundamental concepts first, which you can find in my FREE cheatsheet below. If you want to use overlearning, and you have any questions, let me know in the comments, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org!