Benefits of overlearning

Girlfriends going to schoolContinuing practice after students have attained a high level of accuracy appears to improve retention, Canadian researchers report. Normand Peladeau, Provalis Research, and Jacques Forget and Francoys Gagne, Universite du Quebec/Montreal, examined the relative benefits of mastery learning, overlearning, and fluency building for academic performance and long-term retention. College students enrolled in an introductory course in quantitative methods were asked to practice every week with a computerized flash-card program until they attained various mastery criteria. Results confirmed that students who practiced until they achieved mastery improved individual exam scores and long-term retention. Overlearning–continued practice after attaining mastery–was found to increase the students’ long-term retention. However, trying to increase the speed with which students correctly answered questions did not bring further gains in academic achievement or long-term retention. The study found a positive relationship between a positive attitude toward the course and the amount of drill and practice students did.

This study, carried out with 168 college students in eight classes with four instructors, investigated the relative benefits of mastery learning with timed and untimed practice. Instructors were asked to include weekly practice sessions in their coursework and to reward students who attended with points. After the first two weeks of practice, students in each class were ranked according to performance on the first two study units and on prior ability (GPA from last two years of high school). Students within each class were randomly assigned to three experimental conditions: mastery learning only; overlearning; and timed overlearning in which students tried to increase the speed at which they were able to answer questions correctly. Instructors did not know to which experimental condition each student was assigned. The mastery group had to practice until they reached an average score of 85 percent correct for two weeks. The overlearning group was instructed to continue practicing twice a week for five weeks after attaining 85 percent accuracy. The timed-overlearning group continued practicing twice a week for five additional weeks, focusing on increasing the number of correct responses per minute.

The percentage of students participating in practice sessions varied considerably between classes. High-ability students in all classes generally practiced regardless of incentives. Lower-ability students were much less likely to practice unless there was incentive or pressure to do so. Instructors varied considerably in the amount of pressure and contingencies they placed on students to attend practice sessions. Academic performance was measured immediately after the completion of the study and again five to six months later. Two types of questions were used – simple recall of specific questions and transfer of knowledge to new examples. These researchers used the teachers’ own tests to measure achievement rather than a single test designed for the study.

Practicing until mastery has positive impact

Practicing until mastery (85 percent correct) had a positive impact on academic achievement. For those students who participated in practice sessions and reached mastery, exam scores were higher both immediately following the course and several months later. Students who continued to practice for five weeks after they reached mastery demonstrated increased academic benefits?higher grades and much better long-term retention. Students whose practice was timed to increase their speed showed a small increase in response rates, but this difference did not improve their academic achievement or longterm retention over students in untimed practice sessions. Finally, these drill and practice activities appeared to improve students’ attitudes toward the course, the subject matter and computerized practice. The more lenient a teacher was in relying on students to voluntarily engage in computerized practice, the less low-achieving students practiced and the larger the gap became between high and low achievers in that classroom.

These researchers stress that for repeated practice to be beneficial, items must be carefully designed to enable students to learn knowledge and skills that are really prerequisite to the desired outcome. Class activities should offer enough practice opportunities to ensure the acquisition and retention of specific skills and knowledge. They should also provide sufficient textual variability to facilitate transfer of learning to other problems. Tasks emphasizing basic skills and facts should be combined with more complex problems. However, these researchers believe that focusing on complex learning activities exclusively, at the expense of carefully sequenced instruction and repeated practice, may be counterproductive. Too many students, when asked to work on complex cognitive activities, perform poorly for lack of practice and mastery of basic knowledge and skills. These researchers believe that most students benefit from a more balanced set of carefully designed instructional activities that include repeated practice as well as complex problems.


“Effect of Paced and Unpaced Practice on Skill, Application and Retention: How Much Is Enough?”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 40, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 769-801.

Published in ERN December/January 2004 Volume 17 Number 1

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