Adequate Learning Vs Overlearning: How Many Repetitions Is Enough?

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You know those happy moments in the practice room when you experience a tiny breakthrough, and after having struggled for a while, can finally hit that high note, get the shift in tune, or produce that nice clear sound exactly like you hear it in your head?

Feels like cause for celebration, right?

Well, as a kid, I would reward myself for my achievement by putting my violin down and taking a practice break. Which would sometimes stretch into the next day…

It seemed like a reasonable enough thing to do at the time. But now that I have kids, seeing them move on after just one successful repetition of a skill kind of drives me nuts. I mean, you get through your Tae Kwon Do pattern without incident just once, and you’re ready to move on? What?!!

Shouldn’t you be able to do it correctly at least twice in a row before moving on? And wouldn’t three perfect reps in a row be even better? What about five? Or maybe seven?

Of course, at some point, more isn’t really better, and is just a waste of time and energy. But where do you hit the point of diminishing returns? How many repetitions is “enough?”

Adequate learning vs. overlearning

Before we explore some of the studies in this area, let’s take a quick look at a couple key terms or concepts first.

Say you are working on a passage and keep having memory glitches or play a few notes out of tune, but with a bit of work, finally get through the tricky spots without incident.

If at this point you moved on to a new skill or passage, you would have engaged in what’s called “adequate” learning. Because sure, you presumably ironed out the problem area, and reached a certain level of proficiency, but didn’t go above and beyond that point.

If, however, you continued to work on the passage, and put in additional practice repetitions beyond the point of reaching proficiency, you would have engaged in “overlearning.”

Surprisingly, I didn’t come across as much research on overlearning as I would have expected to find, but it does seem that there are some benefits – particularly in the area of retention.

Sustaining skills over time

For instance, a US Army study followed the learning curve of 38 reservists who were trained in how to disassemble and assemble an M60 machine gun. A control group practiced until they could achieve one error-free performance1. An “overlearninggroup practiced until the same point, and then some (specifically, their training was extended by however many repetitions it took them to get to an error-free level2; so if it took them 30 tries to get it right, they did a total of 60 repetitions3). A third group practiced until proficiency, and 4 weeks later, had a “refresher” session where like the overlearning group, they did as many repetitions as it took for them to get it right in the first session.

8 weeks after their initial training session, all three groups were tested on their M60 disassembly/assembly performance.

How’d they do?

As you can imagine, both the overlearning group and refresher group outperformed the control group at the 8-week mark (by 65% and 57%, respectively). And while their performance at 8 weeks was pretty similar, there were some meaningful differences between the two, which suggests that overlearning may have been a more effective approach overall.

The overlearning group not only executed the skill (mostly) flawlessly during their extended training time, but they also got faster, cutting 12.74 seconds off their time (189.6 to 152.2 seconds) from their first error-free performance to their last practice attempt of the day. To me, this speaks to greater automaticity of the skill – the ability to perform the skill more efficiently and effectively without having to think one’s way through every step.

By comparison, the refresher group had forgotten quite a bit by the time they had their refresher course 4 weeks later, averaging more than 5 errors on their first practice attempt. In fact, most of the soldiers failed to complete an error-free trial before the end of their refresher training session, and the overlearning group demonstrated better performance after 8 weeks of not touching an M60, than the refresher group did after 4 weeks.

Which suggests that overlearning leads to gains that last longer than simply practicing up to the “good enough” point.

Surgical training

In another study, 20 surgical residents were tasked with practicing a common gall bladder removal procedure.

Everyone practiced the procedure4 until they reached “proficiency” which was defined as achieving a score of 80. Once they reached proficiency, 10 of the residents did no further practice of the skill. Meanwhile, the other 10 residents continued to practice, putting in as many repetitions as it took for them to reach the score of 80 in the first place (i.e. 100% overlearning).

To see how much of an impact the overlearning had, both groups were tested 1, 4, and 12 weeks later, and evaluated on their simulator score, how long it took for them to perform the procedure, and accuracy.

How’d they do?

Overall, the overlearning group appeared to learn the procedure and retain their skills better, outperforming the “adequate-learning” group by an average score of 76 vs. 68, while making fewer mistakes and completing the procedure about 20% faster.

So while extra practice does take more time and effort in the short term, it seems to have benefits in the long run. And like the soldiers in the previous study, the overlearning group’s ability to perform the procedure faster suggests a higher level of automaticity.

Like the difference between a capable but hesitant new driver on their learner’s permit, and an experienced cabbie who can navigate city traffic and parallel park without a second thought. I mean, if your toe accidentally got chopped off while preparing Thanksgiving dinner , there’s no question about which driver you’d want taking you to the hospital, right?

How much overlearning is enough?

While overlearning seems to be a good thing, it’s not so clear how much overlearning is best. More seems to be better, but there is a point of diminishing returns. Where doing more takes a ton of time and energy, but yields relatively little gain. Besides, overlearning for the sake of overlearning can lead to mindless, ineffective practice, which could do more harm than good.

There does seem to be some evidence that 50% overlearning is the minimum to get some benefit (i.e. if, for instance, it took you 10 repetitions to reach proficiency, you’d do an additional 5 repetitions past that point, for a total of 15 reps). So if you’re going to give this a try, that might be the best place to start, in terms of minimizing friction and resistance.

And 100% overlearning appears to give us more bang for our buck than 150% or 200% overlearning. So ultimately, 100% may be a good target to aim for in the long run (e.g. if it took you 10 reps to reach proficiency, you’d do 10 more, for 20 total).

What I like most about the idea of overlearning though, is how the overlearning protocol could potentially increase motivation and focus during practice.

Because if you know that the amount of overlearning you have to do is a function of how many practice repetitions it takes to work a passage up to proficiency in the first place, wouldn’t you be really motivated to practice in a much more thoughtful, deliberate way? Where instead of mindlessly doing one repetition after another, you problem-solve in the most efficient and effective way you can, so as to reach that minimum level of proficiency in the fewest possible repetitions?

So the next time my kids are slopping through their Tae Kwon Do patterns, maybe this will be a twist that could boost their motivation to buckle down and make each repetition count. Then again, they’re pretty crafty little buggers, and have foiled most of my attempts to “psychology” them in the past…

Footnotes

  1. On average, it took each soldier about 30 minutes to reach error-free performance
  2. This is known as 100% overlearning. Engaging in half as many repetitions as it takes to reach the target level of proficiency is known as 50% overlearning, and so on.
  3. In general, it took an extra 15-20 minutes for soldiers to complete their extended training
  4. Don’t worry! They practiced on a simulator – not real people.

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Comments

24 Responses

  1. As Jeff Foxworthy once said, “I hate a smart child” (his daughter who’d have a snappy comeback to something he said – it kind of comes with being the kid of a comedian, I suppose).

    I feel like there’s a popular quote somewhere that goes to the effect of “Learn it, then learn it again”. This ties in to stuff covered before about how just getting it right one time isn’t going to cut it by any standard. It’s interesting now that we have some numbers about just how _much_ to drill it in after that one successful take, even if they’re just guesses at this point. I would be very interested in further research in this area, though I’d bet my bottom dollar the threshold of max overlearning benefit would vary from person to person…

  2. for quite some time now i’ve had the feeling that once i reached the point of “got it” for a particular passage or piece, if i stopped and moved to something else i wouldn’t have ingrained it enough. so i’d bite the bullet and try it again. usually it would take me a couple or more attempts to get it right a second time. then i’d try it again until i got it right, and eventually, with more nauseating repetition i’d be able to do it two times in a row without error.

    but why stop then, when i could literally do it a few zillion more times until i could do an infinite number of repetitions without error? but i’m only flesh and blood, so usually i will stop before even reaching the two-times-in-a-row-perfectly point. i stop because i can feel my energy level and ability diminishing. it feels like i’m running out of some kind of mental energy that will leave me in a zombie-like state if i continue. or maybe i’ll just jump out the window and solve my problems once and for all…

    this article reminds me of how many variables there are surrounding this whole are of practice psychology, and that i’m not alone in facing these issues. tomorrow maybe things will be easier.

    many thanks, Noa, for another thought-provoking and encouraging post.

    Gary Berlind/

  3. Nicely done – as usual. On a macro level, I’m wondering if teachers feel a need to “move on” too. Once a student “gets” a piece, it’s time to move on the another. Perhaps the student or their parents are tired of it; or there was an exhausting sprint to be ready for a contest or competition. In some cases, this just might be when real learning can begin.

    Isn’t there a saying along the lines of: “Amatures practice until they get it right; pros practice until they can’t get it wrong.”?

    Thank you!

    1. Great article, thank you! I too move on as a teacher at this point to keep the student motivated and I sacrifice perfection for progress. It is hard to know if this is the best strategy but I believe and hope it is.

      I thought this article was going to be about the decay of a piece of music after it has achieved “perfection”, for example preparing for a recital as a student and technique becoming sloppy. What is the danger of this happening, or is this just a student phenomenon?

      1. Hi Rebecca,

        Yes, perfection is essentially an unachievable standard, so I think it’s best to go for “optimal” and move on. It’s always possible to circle back and make things better in iterative cycles anyway, and motivation (and keeping things feeling “fresh”) is key.

  4. Hi Noa
    Interesting read. In my musical practice i work on a piece until I get it perfect. At that point I try to play it through perfectly 3 more times . Each time I have even the smallest error I return to 0 times and start again. Its very enlightening to see how much your concentration can wander especially during the third repitition. I find this method works for me, YMMV.

  5. I read a book about practice habits. It said that you practice until you can play the phrase correctly 5 out of 7 times. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But the focus required is more intense over the time it takes to do the 5 out of 7 so it does seem to be a magic number. Also the author said that if you are not “easily” reaching that goal you have either not figured out the fingerings or you are working beyond your capabilities and you should back off.
    As far as retention goes the 5 out of 7 works for me, but “your mileage may vary.”

  6. Thank you Noa for the very interesting post.
    Well, this comes somewhat in contraddiction with some of your previous posts about interleaved and variant vs. blocked practice. It seems after all that some moderate blocked practice in the early stages of learning a piece or new skill is beneficial…

    1. Hi Konstantine,

      Astute observation. Yes, I wondered about this too when reading through the studies.

      There does seem to be some indication that blocked practice can be helpful in earlier stages of learning a skill. And in these studies in particular, there was only one skill being learned, and in only one single practice session. So it’s a little tricky to try to generalize to what would work best when we are learning multiple skills (or pieces) over the course of days and weeks of regular practice.

      I’m sure there are personal differences too, but for me, I’m a little uncomfortable moving on from something after achieving the first successful trial of the skill. Seems that there’s too much luck that could have been involved. It’s nice to be able to do it at least twice in a row so you know it wasn’t a fluke the first time.

  7. I am curious about the relation between overlearning and spaced (interleaved?) repetition. Don’t know if there’s already an answer for how to combine the two or when to use which one, but I would guess that this overlearning practice would work better for new material, while the interleaved could be use to get better retention on material that you’ve already (over)learned. Time to practice, I guess!

    1. Hi Max,

      That’s what I’m thinking too. Overlearning when something is really new to see if you can figure it out, then interleaved to get better at retrieving the exact sequence of motor movements the first time (not the 2nd or 3rd or 5th time).

  8. This is a great article. I kinda suspected as much but dont always exercise the discipline to overtrain! Also ties in with the idea of building new connectiins in the brain.. if each perfect repetitiin is like on connection it makes sense to do more and make the learning more permanent, like building up strands of rope. Thanks Noa!

  9. Great post on an important topic. It seems an unfortunate choice of terms to call an effective learning method “over learning” as it seems to imply the same kind of negativity and harm as “overdoing.” I think it would be more appropriate to call the typical approach “under learning” than to call this “over learning.”

    I’m also curious about how this relates to the interleaved practice techniques that the previous commenter mentioned. I would imagine that when working through a trouble spot, one could “over practice” in the first session and then throughout the next week or two interleave that passage throughout the practice routine striving to achieve greater competency over time. In the military study above, I would bet that if the over practice group revisited the task periodically over the course of the next 8 weeks in interleaved fashion they would have performed close to 100%.

  10. My piano teacher always told me that I should move onto the next bit only when I can play the part I’m working on 3 times in a row.

    It sounds from this post like I could benefit from even more repetition. However, 3 times in a row has worked as a pretty good “rule of thumb” so far. It has the advantage that you don’t have to count every repetition.

  11. This is a great topic. To maintain your skills and develop them even further takes a lot of practice, patience and discipline. You definitely have to be mature enough to know when to let something go or when to get it to the “acceptable level” without wanting to have complete mastery over it.

    I guess it also has to do with what your musical goals are, and how you’re measuring/tracking your progress. I believe that setting goals for yourself and seeing the progress you’re making can motivate you and get you there quicker.

  12. this is a great topic, and it reminds me of the old riddle about cottage cheese; ” how did the guy who invented cottage cheese know when he was done?”

    actually, i think each musician has to figure it out for themselves. there are many factors involved, including the player’s level of development, their goals and motivations of the moment, and their personal levels of muscle memory, music memory, intellectual memory, and visual memory available to the player. and that may even change over time for any given player.

    repetitions once a passage or piece is “nailed” can obviously strengthen each one of these four memories quite independently. so sometimes it can be like making four cottage cheeses at the same time.

    Gary Berlind/

  13. It’s not at all clear how relevant a relatively simple procedure like assembling a rifle has to do with playing an instrument. Putting together a gun is something a dead average man can learn how to do in a few days of basic training (mere hundreds of repetitions). Playing an instrument takes years of consistent practice (thousands or tens of thousands of repetitions) and requires coordinating a gaggle of precision skills. I’d be more comfortable extrapolating the study to the results you can get teaching a student in the first few months of study.

    There is a way to run the experiment on oneself, though. Learn a piece, and overlearn some segments and just practice until bare competence on others. Record the subjective observations (feelings of ease) and even errors.

  14. I can say (after more than 35 years playing bass in a professional orchestra, we all learn differently. While some things are super easy for one person, the next player over will find it difficult. Whereas the person finding the one thing ‘hard’ will do something else super easily, while that same other player, will find it hard. Again, we are all wired differently. As experienced players, we discover that these same difficult passages keep coming back over time, so finding a way to internalize them (own it!) will make your life way easier, once you do.

    I have found that each student comes in with his/her own gifts and challenges and there is no same student. But each student also trains us as teachers to recognize or discover what worked, or what clicked to help that individual and over time, we recognize some of these similarities with others that come after them, which enable us to recognize them, and then ably help that next student.

  15. I’m a drummer. I often work on coordination patterns that I can then use in beats, fills, solos, songs, etc. One thing I heard mentioned, but didn’t see stressed, was the speed of execution. Like the “cottage cheese” riddle above, how fast is fast enough? I often want to speed up patterns to my physical limits and repeat them dozens of times in a row. This seems to make the patterns completely “physical.” At that point, they just become a sound pattern, much like speaking, where we no longer have to think about how we move our mouths and modulate our breath to create it, and can then focus on what we’re saying. This is different that playing a complete piece obviously, but is working scales or short runs faster than you might ever need them, doesn’t seem like over-learning (I too dislike that term), but more like exactly what is needed to take your focus off the processes of what you’re doing, and allow your mind to oversee and direct the entirety of what you’re playing.

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