Pop psychology is always bursting with new and intriguing possibilities to unlock the potential of the human mind, but these are not always what they seem.
One of the most recent phenomena to enter the public consciousness is “overlearning” which, some claim, can help average people retain more knowledge commit things to memory more easily.
Although the phenomena has recently caught public attention, the concept has actually been around since the 1890s, when researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus performed studies applying the technique on subjects.
He recognized that overlearning unimportant things like nonsense syllables could help his subjects retain what they had learned for longer periods of time.
Overlearning in practice
There has been much speculation regarding overlearning, but researchers need far more information before they can declare a definitive case for or against it.
However, in initial studies, it’s been found that overlearning physical movements, such as a basketball player or ballerina would make, helps people remember the movements more easily and for a longer period.
Overlearning physical activities can therefore be considered a boon to athletes who need to memorize complex movements and perform them on a regular basis.
The haziest speculation concerns those who would try to use the technique when memorizing facts, such as students who need to study for a test or medical practitioners who must have an abundance of knowledge memorized.
Other applications of the technique can be found as well, but these need more research to be fully cemented and verified in the scientific literature.
There simply hasn’t been enough time or money spent on the science of overlearning to come to any concrete conclusions.
Does overlearning actually work?
Again, more time and money spent studying the technique would be helpful fruitful.
However, initial findings seem to debunk the notion that overlearning mental facts and statistics greatly improves long term knowledge of those same facts and statistics.
Short term memory does improve but the retention rate for long term memory does not seem to diverge too greatly from the average person, who has not practiced overlearning.
There is evidence, however, that physical tasks greatly improve when overlearned and that the body can efficiently and effectively learn new tasks and improve in learned tasks when those tasks are repeated beyond a normal frequency.
Overlearning physical tasks by two or three times the amount initially thought necessary improved the tasks moderately in strongly in studies done. It’s also true that the benefits of overlearning greatly decrease over time.
As more time progresses, people will start to unlearn what they’ve learned and even overlearned until they’re sufficiently average at the proposed task.
It’s also been seen that overlearning mathematical equations and number-based facts do not improve the cognitive recall of that material. A control group in such an experiment performed just as well as a variable group when that group was given time and inclination to overlearn mathematical equations.
Other study techniques to boost retention
While overlearning may not lead to stellar results, there are techniques which people can try at their own pace and leisure.
For example, “pre-testing” can improve students’ memorization and improve their results on tests, even more than studying the same material for longer. Simply take tests related to the material you’re learning before you learn it.
Even if you answer incorrectly, your mind will know what to look for and improve your retention of the material.
You can also try spaced practices, which requires spacing out your study sessions and focusing on a topic for short periods over several days. This technique allows you to take in and focus on more information at once.
You should also be quizzing yourself frequently to truly test what you know as you learn it. Answering correctly frequently on questions lets you know that you’ve substantially memorized and learned that topic.
In addition to quizzing yourself, you can try interleaving your practice, or blocking off specific sets of problems.
These can include math word problems, biology facts, or essay-type questions. Finally, paraphrase and reflect.
Rewrite what you’ve learned in your own words and make “mental shortcuts” in your mind to remind yourself what complex topics mean in an easy and streamlined way.
Overlearning is probably not the be-all, end-all that pop psychology suggests it may be.
It can certainly help improve retention in the short term, and probably does help athletes perform physical tasks with greater clarity and consistency, but findings pertaining to mental fortitude and retention are mixed at best and negative at worst.
If you want to use overlearning to your advantage, it’s probably best to try the technique close to a deadline or when you’ll need the knowledge you’re learning.
If you want to memorize facts and information and retain them long term, the above memorization techniques are available and easy to test for yourself. In addition, you can enhance your revision sessions by learning how to focus when studying.