To overlearn is “to continue studying or practicing (something) after initial proficiency has been achieved so as to reinforce or ingrain the learned material or skill,” according to the Dictionary.

For many students and parents as well, it’s difficult to grasp this concept and why it’s important.   If Mackenna has mastered a lesson, she wants to get back to Facebook.   If Connor has aced a test, his study notes may go straight into the trash.

According to psychological studies, however, overlearning is important to successful retention of material and execution of tasks.  The new mantra is “Don’t Just Learn — Overlearn.”

In a study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, it was found that as people became more skilled at a task, the amount of energy used to perform that task decreased. By the end of the learning process, the amount of effort they expended to carry out the task had declined about 20% from when they started.

In the physical realm, repeating a task allows you to commit a specific movement to muscle memory, which in turn allows you to cut down on unnecessary movements and eliminate wasted energy.   The same holds true for learning. There is actually a  mental correlate to “muscle memory.”

Some Examples of Overlearning:

  • A Pro basketball player doesn’t go home when he has achieved a nearly perfect record on his free throws; he will spend hours on the court practicing the same shot over and over, so when he is in front of a crowd, he is able to perform the same task without distraction.
  • A pianist doesn’t stop practicing when she has memorized the music. Every time she plays, it takes less energy, allowing her to concentrate on other ways to improve her performance, such as infusing emotion into her music.
  • A dancer may work on the same move so many times that she feels as if she could do it perfectly while sleeping. This doesn’t stop her from repeating that same move. Committing the move to memory is a necessity; she lowers any chance of error with each practice session.

All of these examples need nothing short of long hours of repetitive practice. But it is during this overlearning phase, when the body is operating on ‘cruise control,’ (that) the mind and its intuition kicks in and initiates tiny changes that make a performance sing.

In our work with students preparing for standardized exams such as the SAT and ACT, overlearning is a key component. The more familiar students are with a test — its format, instructions, question types, strategies, etc., the more mental capacity will be available for them during the test to do the hard work of problem-solving and thinking critically about the questions on the test.