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New study highlights benefits of 'overlearning' as teaching principle

03/02/2017 Joanna

Teachers who take time to emphasise key lessons and make sure they have been learned could help students to retain information better, according to a new study.

Conducted by Brown University in the US, the research offered evidence that learners should keep practicing a given task for a short time even after they believe they cannot get any better, as this type of "overlearning" will ensure any performance gains are locked in and retained.

For this study, a group of 183 volunteers were asked to take part in a visual perception task that challenged them to detect which of two successively presented images had a patterned orientation, and which was formless. After eight 20-minute rounds of training, the initial 60 volunteers seemed to master the task.

Two new groups were then formed, with the first practicing the task for eight sessions, waiting 30 minutes, and then training for eight rounds on a new, similar task, while the other group overlearned the first task for 16 blocks of training.

It was shown that being asked to learn one new task and then a similar one soon afterward resulted in the second block of new information interfering with and undermining the mastery achieved on the first. By contrast, overlearning the first task prevented effective learning of a second, but preserved the mastery of the first task better.

Such findings could inform the design of future training and teaching methods, particularly as regards the timing of different sessions to achieve the best results.

Corresponding author Takeo Watanabe, a professor of cognitive linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, said: "If you want to learn something very important, maybe overlearning is a good way. If you do overlearning, you may be able to increase the chance that what you learn will not be gone."

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