To truly master something takes a lot of hard work and determination, not to mention time. There are many things that affect the way in which we learn including our mood, our environment, and even our genetics and it’s not always down to the amount of effort we put in either as to how well we master a subject. So then, what is it that enables a person to truly master something? Is there anything we can do to help us learn something better?
A study published not too long ago in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggested that even mastering a subject isn’t enough to ensure it will stick. Instead, the researchers decided there was a much more effective strategy – overlearning. Overlearning is just as its name suggests. It is learning something to the point of mastery, then studying it some more.
The study featured a visual-recognition test that was carried out by 60 individuals. While doing the task the volunteers were asked to look for a pattern among several images they were shown. The idea was to recognise and learn which images really did have patterns and which ones were simply random. The results of the study confirmed that most people got it right after about eight practice rounds.
To research the matter further the authors of the study then decided to bring in a second group of volunteers to see how they performed in the tests. The oxygen unit researchers had half of the group complete eight practice rounds, then take a break, and then complete another eight rounds. The other half of the group completed sixteen rounds all in one sitting, with no break in between. They were then allowed a break before coming back in to complete another eight rounds.
This was where researchers were able to test their theory of overlearning. When both groups came back the following day to carry out the exact same tasks again the first group performed worse than the previous day the first time they tried, but better on the second session. The second group performed significantly better in the first session (the one which involved overlearning) than they had the day before, but worse in the latter session.
Looking at the results from the study the researchers concluded that overlearning is in fact the best way to retain information and truly learn something. Overlearning enabled the subjects to really cement the information in their minds, which lessened the chance of it being replaced by other incoming data.
When something new is learned it takes time for your brain to process that information and form a more permanent memory, and during this time, it’s especially vulnerable. But, by preparing more than may seem necessary, increases considerably your chance of lodging that information on your brain. Results from the study clearly demonstrated that even a short period of overlearning can drastically change the outcome of what has been learned.