Think about the last time you tried to learn a new skill. Maybe it was throwing a football with a perfect spiral, playing your favorite song on the guitar or learning a new language. Let’s say after practicing for a few days, you make the perfect throw, you play all the right chords or you finally figure out how to correctly ask where the bathroom is in French. Mission accomplished … right?
Not exactly. It is true that you successfully did the thing you set out to do. But can you do it again? Can you throw the perfect spiral every time? Can you play that song with no mistakes anytime someone requests it? Will you remember your French when you really need to find a bathroom in Paris? Odds are you won’t be able to recall the information you need in a pinch, because doing something correctly once or even twice doesn’t make you an expert. You have to practice. And practice again. And then practice even more after that. This repeated practice is the concept of overlearning.
What Is Overlearning?
The basic principle of overlearning is that if you do anything over and over again, it becomes part of your long-term memory. In the workplace, employees benefit from overlearning, because it makes them more profitable and reliable members of the team. When you present employees with a new concept, there is a period of time in which their brain is focused on learning and comprehension. Beyond that period, the focus shifts to recall.
Think of the brain as a car engine in winter; if you’re trying to recall something you haven’t practiced, it’s going to take longer for the cold engine to turn over — and once it does, you still have to get out and scrape the windows and wait for the heat to kick in. Overlearning is like warming up the car ahead of time. When you get in, the windows are already defrosted, the car is nice and warm, and you’ve saved yourself some time and frustration. Overlearning shortens the first phase (learning and comprehension) and brings you to the second phase (recall) more quickly.
Using Overlearning in a Training Setting
If you are responsible for training new employees, you should incorporate overlearning throughout your curriculum. The last thing you want is for new employees to forget everything you’ve taught them once they become independent. In order for your onboarding to be effective, your learners have to retain the information you’re presenting.
Try to work as much practice as you can into your agenda, and don’t stop just because your new hires say, “I get it now.” The key word there is “now.” They understand the concept today, in this moment, but that’s only short-term memory, which won’t help them later. Overlearning doesn’t stop at comprehension or even mastery.
When it comes to more seasoned employees, overlearning can come in the form of maintenance training or “refresher” courses, or it can happen as a result of an audit or disciplinary action. You can help employees improve retention by holding weekly, monthly or quarterly training sessions to review an existing procedure and make sure everyone is still on the same page. You may hear grumbles like, “I already know how to do this” or, “I learned this a long time ago,” but the goal is to keep the gears from rusting. Ultimately, employees will benefit from hearing the content and practicing it again.
Sometimes, an employee fails to master a concept or procedure, which may result in poor work or the need for frequent retraining. In these instances, you must take the initiative to encourage overlearning so the employee’s work doesn’t continue to suffer and escalate him or her to a disciplinary action. These situations often call for one-on-one, individualized training, during which you can control the amount of practice the employee must engage in. Find those procedures, systems or processes that the employee struggles with, and focus your efforts on helping him or her practice them again and again. You can even develop a 30-day plan for the employee to follow after your one-on-one session that includes practice tasks, work to present to you for review and follow-up sessions to check progress.
Mastery Achieved! What’s Next?
An all-star NFL quarterback can make the perfect pass. An award-winning rock star can play her greatest hits with her eyes closed. What do you think they’re doing off the field and stage? They are still practicing! Every time learners practice a concept, they are moving the needle closer and closer to mastery. But once they reach that ultimate level, they have to maintain it. The benefits of overlearning will never max out. Just because employees feel they are no longer improving doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from continuous practice.
If an employee tells you, “I already know how to do this,” it may very well be true. But overlearning will ensure that he or she never forgets.