Overlearning is the continued practice or study of material or a skill long after information or the skill has been mastered. If you were, for instance, studying your multiplication tables, or vocabulary for a foreign language, you would at some point master the material. With overlearning you continue to study mastered material so that it hopefully becomes automatic.
The practice of overlearning is used by many schools that emphasize continued practice of mastered materials, and also by many students. It is not analogous to cramming, which is studying a lot of material the night before a test. Yet there are some similarities particularly in the academic setting. Once material has been learned, overlearned material may not be retained for a school year or a lifetime. When you cram for tests, you may be able to do slightly better on tests, but your retention of the material may not exist for weeks or months after you’ve taken the test.
To address this pedagogical focus in schools, many schools instead work on not only learning material, but also referring back to it as a class or school year progresses. By referring back to learned material and incorporating old material into new lessons, some new studies, especially one by the University of Southern Florida conducted in 2005, suggest students are more likely to retain material. This practice that some schools and teachers are now employing is called distributed learning. Even if you are being taught in a more linear mode, particularly at the college or high school level, reviewing your notes a few times a week can help you retain the information you’ve already been tested on. This could be an effective strategy if you will take cumulative tests at the end of semester or at a school year’s end.
There is a place for traditional overlearning. It may prove especially useful if you have anxiety while taking tests. Having automatic answers at your disposal can help make a student feel more confident when he or she tests. Overlearning is a frequently used tool by people who make speeches, or who must perform in any way to an audience.
A violinist doesn’t stop learning a piece he or she will perform once it’s initially mastered. The violinist instead keeps practicing that piece so that it is automatic and there is little possibility of forgetting it when performing in front of a large crowd. Similarly, actors, dancers, and other musicians may calm the jitters by overlearning their parts, and may actually improve their performance by continuing to practice beyond initial memorization of lines, steps or moves, or musical notes.