What is Overlearning? A Scientific Update

June 15, 2017 

overlearning-update-trumpet.jpgWhen it comes to learning something new, how much is too much? When is enough enough?

Several years ago, A+ ran an article about the technique of overlearning (“What Is ‘Overlearning’ and Why Is It So Important?”). We thought we would revisit the subject to update readers on new developments.

In our original article, we answer the question, What is overlearning; “to continue studying or practicing (something) after initial proficiency has been achieved so as to reinforce or ingrain the learned material or skill.” We go on to explain how valuable this practice is for students who are striving for excellence in any area, including testing.

Does this recommendation still hold true after four years? Are there changes or modifications to overlearning theory that we should be aware of?

One interesting development, according to a recent Scientific American article, is that sleep can assist overlearning to become even more effective. Author Victoria Sayo Turner asserts that because sleep may be instrumental in helping us remember what we’ve just learned, “the two might act as a useful combination.” This certainly helps vindicate every parent who has argued with an exhausted son or daughter still cramming at 2:00 a.m.! Pulling an all-nighter before that 10:00 a.m. biology final is not the answer. Science is now confirming that you may indeed perform better with a good night’s sleep rather than six more hours of groggy studying.

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Additional news out of Brown University in January of this year strongly reinforces the overlearning technique. In
“Practice Makes Perfect, and ‘Overlearning’ Locks It In,” author David Orenstein examines a study done by Brown’s Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, Takeo Watanabe. According to the article, “you should keep practicing for a little while even after you think you can’t get any better.” The study noted “performance gains” achieved by this method. As Orenstein explains, “When people learn a new task and then learn a similar one soon afterward, the second instance of learning often interferes with” the first. “Overlearning prevents against such interference.”

What might overlearning look like in practice? It could be combined with simple memorization, of vocabulary words or math formulas, for example. Even if you know every definition of every word on the page, and every variable and exponent of every formula you will need, overlearning says: “Review it again.”


Overlearning also pairs well with distributed practice, another productive study method. Distributed practice is a highly recommended “technique whereby the student distributes his/her study effort in a given course over many study sessions that are relatively short in duration.” It is more or less the opposite of cramming. To combine overlearning with distributed practice, simply increase the number of sessions for any particular subject area.

Talk to your A+ tutor about overlearning and any other study techniques you are interested in trying. Your tutor can offer suggestions and evaluate what works best for you personally. He or she will help you make the optimal choice among the many study strategies that are available to you.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, we are here to help make your testing process as productive and stress-free as possible.  We match you with the tests that are most likely to help you succeed. We are also able to pair you with tutors who help you attain your “personal best” score.

If you would like more information about any of our services, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware are available to answer questions and provide solutions. You may reach either of them by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.

Photo credit: S.su




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