Effective Study Skills Part 3 – Overlearning
Is there such a thing as studying too much? Actually, there is! Psychologists use the word overlearning to describe what happens when you continue to practice something you’ve mastered in a single study session.
Overlearning is helpful when you’re learning something physical, like making a free throw or using the brake pedal to stop a car. This is because it can develop automaticity, or acting without needing to think first. Here’s a great article from Scientific American on the ways that overlearning can be beneficial. However, if you are studying something academic, you probably don’t want to take thinking out of the equation.
One reason that overlearning is unhelpful is that it can take up a lot of your limited study time. A second reason is that it can lead to an illusion of competence. In other words, it can trick you into thinking that you don’t need to review the content again later. If you pile your learning all into one session, you may know the material well at the end of the session, but you will forget it easily.
Interleaving means designing your study time so that you are switching from one subject to a different one frequently. It is a great way to avoid the problem of overlearning. The chart below shows how this works.
Imagine you are a typical high school student with homework in Spanish, Chemistry, and Math plus a History test in the morning. It would be tempting to get all the homework done first then use the rest of your time to study for the History test. However, that study schedule sets you up for two hours of straight History at the end of the night. Reviewing the same material repeatedly in the same study session can result in overlearning.
If you read my blog about working memory, you’ll remember it’s important to move information between your working memory and your long-term memory using the processes of encoding and retrieval. Interleaving your Spanish, Chemistry, and Math homework between 30-minute History sessions will force you to do exactly that. Every time you switch from History to a different topic, you will have to encode the information in your long-term memory. When you switch back to History, you will have to retrieve it. Repeated encoding and retrieval builds long-term retention. A two-hour study session, on the other hand, might lead you to the illusion of competence. You feel like you’ve fully mastered the information, but the memories will deteriorate quickly.