We owe much of our early understanding about learning and memory to Hermann Ebbinghaus. In the late 1800s, he memorized lists of words, sounds and non-words, while keeping meticulous notes. Ebbinghuas found (unsurprisingly) that the longer he studied something, the better he remembered it.
What was surprising was the rate we forget things. Now, to be fair, it is not all things. We remember how to ride a bike or brush our teeth without difficulty. But with verbal learning (facts), we soon forget them. The way to counter forgetting is to overlearn.
Overlearning means to go beyond confidence. At the beginning of a lesson, we are not confident about our ability to remember information or do a specific task. We also are not competent. We can’t actually recall the information or perform the task. But as we study and practice, we gain more confidence and have better performance (competence).
Although both confidence and competence both increase over time, confidence rises faster. For every little step of gained ability, we feel much more confident.
No one is more sure of their understanding of the world than college freshman midway through their first semester. When they go home for a visit, they can explain macro economics, principles of psychology and the importance of the Renaissance in the development of western civilization. They are quite confident of their knowledge and conclusions.
Ask any grad student finishing their Ph.D. and they will tell they know a great deal about almost nothing, and they are not even sure about the things they know. There are too many variables to possibly make dogmatic conclusions.
In your experience, you have probably experience the phenomenon of confidence surpassing competence. Ever prepared a presentation or sales pitch, been confident you knew what you’d say when asked questions but discovered that when you opened your mouth to speak, you head was suddenly empty.
Ever prepared for an argument, collected all your main points with evidence, only to discover that in the actual discussion you couldn’t pull out your illustrations. Afterwards, you remember what you were going to say.
Performers know that feeling ready and being ready are not the same thing. Experienced actors and public speakers practice their speeches out loud. It is not enough to do it in your head. You have to say it. Only then can you tell if you are prepared.
The difference, of course, is pressure and stress. We have lots of great ideas of how we will play a game of tennis or chess. But the actual game can be quite different. When the games are competition or championships, the less able we are to mentally predict our performance. We think we’ll do fine, all the way up to the point when we choke.
How It Works
Overlearning works for both knowledge and tasks. Physical and cognitive tasks both improve the more you do them but physical improve more with overlearning.
Physical tasks are learned and forgotten linearly. Every practice session shows some gain. The more you do free throws, the better you get. Reversely, every day you don’t practice the piano, you get a little worse.
Facts seem to acquired linearly but lost within hours. For every hour of study, you gain a similar amount of knowledge. But the forgetting rated in a rapidly declining curve. This seems to be true regardless of content: history, language, nonsense syllables, digits, etc.
Physical and cognitive tasks both improve with overlearning but then it changes. Physical tasks continue to improve but cognitive tasks plateau. Overlearning school material, for example, works in the short- and medium-term but doesn’t increase your overall long-term recall.
In other words, practicing your speech is a great use of overlearning. Overlearning math equations or geography facts might not make it last for year but it helps in the medium term. It simply loses its strength as time passes.
For long-term learning, the best choice is to periodically retrieve it. Under the use-it-or-lose-it banner, pull out the things you want to remember on a regular basis. If it is not there, relearn it and don’t wait as long to retrieve it again. If it is there, check back again at a future date.