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Overlearning: Practice Makes Perfect!

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

What is overlearning?

What makes sports stars so good at what they do? How does a violinist play a complicated concerto without looking at the music? The answer is repetition. Or, to use a more precise technical term: overlearning. Effectively, overlearning means learning a certain skill beyond the point you can improve further. If you’re not familiar with the term, former baseball star Reggie Jackson can offer an example:

“A baseball swing is a very finely tuned instrument. It is repetition, and more repetition, then a little more after that.”

The process of repeating the correct swing of the baseball bat, or playing that difficult violin concerto, leads to it remaining firmly established in the brain’s neural pathways, like it’s been cemented there.

When we are taught new information or develop a new skill, it remains in those neural pathways – for a while. But it doesn’t stay there. Unless that skill or that information is used again soon after, the brain will clear it away. This is one of the biggest problems teachers and trainers face.

How do you ensure that information or skills remain in the learner’s brain?

There are two key factors that help to keep that learning in place.

  1. It needs to be learned in an active way, so the knowledge or skill is retained. Interaction is crucial. If the process made the learner laugh, or they struggled and needed help, or the material was relevant to them – it is less likely to get swept away by the brain.
  2. When the information is revisited on a regular basis, the brain recognises its importance and identifies it isn’t clutter.

The second factor can cause a problem; how can we keep revisiting the same points in training sessions without boring our learners stiff?

That’s where ‘overlearning’ is vital. Skills and knowledge need to be revisited in different ways to avoid boredom (and the process being perceived as irrelevant). While this is particularly important for physical skill development, it also has relevance for retaining knowledge and building cognitive skills.

Let’s use another sporting analogy to illustrate this point. In tennis, the most important part of the game is the serve. A coach will tell you there are seven steps to getting a serve right. Each one needs to be perfect. Therefore, the coach will get the player to practice EACH of those seven stages – repeatedly. But they will use different ways to do it to prevent boredom or the player ‘turning off’. The learning objective remains the same: to master the stage until it is perfect. It’s the method that changes.

How can we use overlearning in the workplace?

If you’re designing an elearning course, you can use three simple steps to consolidate key learning:

  1. Introduce it and explain why it’s important. Tell the learner what they need to know. You might want to use an image as an ‘anchor’ to help it stick (read more here about how images can maximise learning).
  2. Use an interaction or scenario so the learner needs to apply that information. Make this process memorable – make it fun, relevant and collaborative – so it improves retention.
  3. Revisit the same point towards the end of the course, again in an active way, or as part of an assessment (testing also helps learning!). Call back to that anchor image you used earlier.

This process of consolidation gives learners the opportunity to become truly fluent, which builds confidence – and, if revisited correctly, increases the chances of that learning being applied in the workplace. The trick, of course, is repetition without boredom; but if you’re using Nimble Author, you can quickly add images, videos and a range of interaction types.

A course is a good place to start, but it’s important to think outside the confines of a single experience when you’re looking for consolidation opportunities. Consider using refresher courses or microcourses at regular intervals, to maintain learning. Use job aids to reinforce key aspects, too – like checklists, quick videos, or process diagrams; and don’t underestimate the power of human interaction. A chat with a colleague or praise from a manager will do wonders for keeping that learning fresh (and the emotional engagement from coaching and mentoring provide extra sticking power to skills and knowledge).

Are there any potential pitfalls?

Consolidating learning over and over again really makes it stick. Unfortunately, that isn’t just true of the things we’d like employees to learn; if they’re completing processes incorrectly day in, day out, this learning will also become firmly placed in their brain. If your learners are practising things ‘wrong’ in their daily work, your well-designed training opportunities will have limited impact. It’s critical to start by finding out what’s happening on the ground.

One other trap to avoid is the myth that massed practice works – practising the same skill over and over in one huge block. Regardless of what you were told at school, this method is actually really ineffective. Interleaved practice is much, much better at consolidating learning. To go back to the baseball analogy, this means practising your swing with a fast ball, then a curveball, then switching to fielding practice – rather than hitting 50 fast balls in a row.

The final problem you might face with overlearning: avoiding illusions of competence. If you’ve practised something over and over again, you can certainly be very fluent. But it’s easy to confuse fluency and understanding. There’s a big difference between being able to name all the features of a product and being able to actually call upon the benefits of these features skilfully in a sales conversation, for example. Application of learning is just as important as consolidating knowledge.

Practice makes perfect

Whether it’s within a single course or across multiple opportunities for learning, repetition is the secret to making learning last. Remember these key points to make overlearning work for your learning and development approach:

  • Make learning memorable the first time, and repeating it will strengthen that initial ‘hook’
  • Start reinforcing skills and knowledge before the brain clears them away
  • Mix it up: switching between skills is far more effective than practising one skill at a time
  • Use multiple modes to consolidate key concepts or skills (before you know it, you’ll be an expert at blended learning!)

Have you used the concept of overlearning in your own approach to training? Do you have any insights to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.