#FridayHack: The Trick to Actually Remembering What You Learn

Overlearning is key to locking in performance gains.

Maybe you are learning a new computer program for work, studying for your MBA, or practicing a new song on the guitar or lines for a play.

Whatever it is that you’re learning, you’ve spent a few hours studying and you feel like you’ve mastered the new information or skill—so you throw in the towel, poor a glass of wine, and turn on Netflix.

The next morning your revisit the information and half of it is completely gone. What gives?

Next time, if you want to make sure that new information has really sunk in, you need to keep practicing a little longer; even after you think you can’t possibly get any better.

It’s called “overlearning,” and a new Brown University study suggests that this tactic of learning a new task past the point of mastery is key to protecting that learning.

Multiple studies have show that when people learn something new and then learn a similar task soon after, the second instance of learning often undermines the mastery achieved on the first. But the researchers at Brown took this one step further, revealing that overlearning prevents against this kind of interference, cementing the new information so well that the opposite happens instead. For a period of time after “overlearning” of the first task occurs, effective learning of the second task is blocked.

It’s almost as if you’re learning ability is on lockdown while your brain solidifies the learning of the first task. What exactly causes this to happen? The researchers discovered that a temporary shift occurs in the balance of two neurotransmitters that control neural flexibility, or “plasticity,” in the part of the brain where the learning occurred.

Thirty minutes after training, regular learners were at the peak of plasticity (leaving their first training vulnerable to interference from a second training), but overlearners were hunkered down with inhibition (protecting the first training, but closing the door on the second).

“These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-training plastic and unstable [learning state] to a hyperstabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning,” wrote the team.

If you need to learn multiple tasks, and have one day to it, don’t worry. The researchers found that when they lengthened the break between two task trainings from 30 minutes to 3.5 hours, those who overlearned and those who didn’t showed similar performance patterns on both tasks. So giving yourself enough time between learning tasks will ensure you can successfully learn, and remember, both without interference.

How to Optimize Timing When Learning New Information

The study focused on a visual learning task, but Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown, said he is confident the effect will  translate to other kinds of learning, such as motor tasks, where phenomena such as interference work similarly.

The authors came to the following conclusion about the best way to optimize the timing of your training when learning new skills or information:

  • To cement training quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning it that follow immediately.
  • Without overlearning, don’t try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of learning will undermine the first.
  • If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.

“If you want to learn something very important, maybe overlearning is a good way,” said Watanabe. “If you do overlearning, you may be able to increase the chance that what you learn will not be gone.”

Finally, a formula to learn things quickly and actually remember them. Where was this study when we were cramming in college?



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