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Overlearning

Teaching strategies

Overlearning: What teachers and support staff need to know

Overlearning – a student continues learning beyond the point of competence (often to ensure that the final assessment is easily passed).

A happy integration aide and student in a school environment.

Overlearning is the strategy of learning more than what is required to complete a given task. The purpose of overlearning is to make the task seem ridiculously easy to ensure it is completed to a high standard with no stress. Overlearning can be thought of as ‘learning by overkill’. In other words, learning to a higher standard than is necessary. For example, a student wants to ace their spelling test which has 10 words. Knowing about overlearning, she doesn’t just memorise each word, but also learns about the origins of each word. This is time consuming, but it makes the spelling test a walk in the park – no more difficult than brushing your teeth. Similarly, a teacher wanting to learn about teaching strategies might not simply read 1 book – they may read 10 books, watch videos, attend lectures (and maybe even write their own book).

Overlearning is not just useful for entire courses or larger topics such as teaching strategies. Overlearning is an effective tool for students who can overlearn selected topics within a course. A student might enrol in a course that has 6 topics. 2 topics are easy, 2 are medium difficulty and 2 are very difficult. To master the course content and receive top grades, the student chooses to overlearn the 2 most difficult topics – the rest are easy in comparison and don’t need additional attention. Here is another way overlearning can be used: a student studying for an exam might choose to concentrate on 1 of 3 aspects of the exam. This allows them to easily complete that section to a near perfect standard and thus all but guarantee a reasonable score. That section now ‘in the bag’, they can spend more mental energy (cognitive load) on the 2 remaining aspects.

The purpose of overlearning is to make the task seem ridiculously easy to ensure it is completed to a high standard with no stress. Overlearning has several benefits.

The most notable is the sizeable reduction in the amount of effort required (both mentally and physically) to achieve the required result. As a student becomes more proficient, they notice patterns, finds short-cuts, reduce accidental errors and avoid common errors and traps. Their performance speed increases accordingly. Their intrinsic motivation grows exponentially with confidence; this results in further increases in conscientiousness and voluntary time spent on the task. Gaps in the student’s knowledge and skills become more obvious, are self-diagnosed and easily addressed. New information can be added to an already comprehensive understanding with little effort. Overlearning means that the student can spend valuable and limited brain power on challenging, high-cognitive tasks, while easily brushing through everything else.i Overlearning also reduces issues that come from distractions and unforeseen events, giving students the ability to manage new and unusual challenges.

Foot notes:

  1. Cognitive load theory says that if students waste brain power trying to remember something (facts, formulas), then higher-order cognitive functions suffer. In layman’s terms, if 20% of the brain is used for memory tasks, that 20% cannot be used for higher-order tasks such as problem solving.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.

ADAM GREEN

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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