science of us

To Truly Learn Something, Study Until You’ve Mastered It — and Then Keep Studying

Photo: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

The good news for all the lazy bums among us: On its own, deliberate practice isn’t enough to turn you into an elite performer, whether you’re talking about boosting your athletic prowess or learning to play the violin. It’s a little bit of a weight off: If you’re not at the top of your game, you can blame something other than your own lack of effort.

The bad news, though, is that some scientists are rewriting the idea of effort itself: When it comes to learning new things, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, studying to the point of mastery still isn’t enough to make things stick. A more effective strategy, the study authors wrote, is something called “overlearning,” which is exactly what it sounds like: studying until you fully grasp the concept at hand, and then studying some more.

For the study, the researchers recruited 60 volunteers for a visual-recognition task, asking them to study a series of images to identify a pattern. The goal was to learn which groups of pictures really did contain patterns and which were just random; on average, people seemed to get the hang of it after about eight rounds of practice.

As a next step, the study authors brought in a new group of participants to do the same task. Half of them practiced for eight rounds, took a break, then did another eight. A second group practiced for 16 rounds, double the amount they needed for things to sink in — that’s the “overlearning” condition — then took a break and did eight more. When the researchers called them back the next day to repeat the same tasks, the first group did worse on the first session compared to the day before, but showed improvement in the later session; the second group did about the same in the later session, but were significantly better on the earlier one (the one they’d overprepared for).

Based on the results, the researchers concluded that overlearning helped to cement the info in participants’ minds, inoculating them against the risk of having other information come along and replace it. When you learn something new, it takes time for that memory to consolidate into something more permanent, and it’s especially vulnerable during that window: “Usually, learning immediately after training is so unstable that it can be disrupted by subsequent new learning until after passive stabilization occurs hours later,” they wrote.

But preparing way more than what felt necessary, they explained, helped the subjects to wedge the information more firmly in their long-term memories: “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.” There are some cases where you can use laziness to your advantage; this, unfortunately, is not one of them.

To Truly Learn Something, Study Way More Than You Need To