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The Art of Cramming (Learning v. Over Learning)

Posted by gnn1 on Thursday, 30 August 2007

 Here is an article fromPsychological Science (‘We’re Only Human”).  It’s on the debate whether ‘over learning’ something (see bold faced section, 5th paragraph for definition/example) is more beneficial than simply stopping studying once you’ve immediately mastered something or whether the excessive studying is a waste of time.

The Science of Cramming

By Wray Herbert

I went to a very nerdy college. This school was so nerdy that the “mascot” was an engineer, and at football games students would chant: “Tangent, secant, cosine, sine. Three point one four one five nine. Go Engineers!”

I’m not kidding.

So how is it possible that today I do not even know what a secant is? Or a sine. To be truthful, I don’t think I really know what trigonometry is, though I’m pretty sure I did back then. My recollection is that I studied all the time, but I seem to have retained almost nothing from my early immersion in math and science.

Was I studying the wrong way during all those wee hours? Well, as it turns out I may have been. The fact is nobody talked much about how to study back then. You just went to class and did homework and took quizzes and complained about it. But you never thought about how long to study or when take a break or call it quits. But psychologists have been thinking about studying and memory and long-term learning, and it appears that some strategies really do work much better than others.

Consider “overlearning.” That’s the term learning specialists use for drilling even after you’ve mastered something. Say you’re studying new vocabulary words, flash-card style, and you finally run through the whole list error-free; any study beyond that point is overlearning. Is this just a waste of valuable time, or does this extra effort embed the new memory even deeper for the long haul?

University of South Florida psychologist Doug Rohrer decided to explore this question scientifically. Working with Harold Pashler of the University of California, San Diego, he had two groups of students study new vocabulary in different ways. One group drilled themselves five times; these students got a perfect score no more than once. The others kept drilling, for a total of ten trials; with this extra effort, the students had at least three perfect run-throughs. Then the psychologists quizzed all the students, once one week later and again three weeks after that.

The results were interesting. When the students took the test a week later, those who had done the extra drilling performed better. So it would work for something like cramming for the SATs, because you really don’t care if you forget those obscure words once you’re in college. But whatever edge the more effortful students had at one week had completely disappeared by four weeks. In other words, if students are interested in learning that lasts, that extra effort is really a waste. Go watch some TV or get some sleep.

Rohrer and Pashler also wanted to see if the scheduling of study breaks might make a difference in learning. It did. When the students took breaks ranging from five minutes to two weeks, those who had taken a one-day break performed best when they were tested ten days later. But if they were tested six months later (the laboratory equivalent of long-term learning), the optimal break time was a full month. In other words, as reported in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, “massing” all the study on a single topic together diminishes learning. It’s better to leave it alone for a while and then return to it, and indeed the longer you want new learning to endure, the longer the optimal break between study sessions.

All these experiments involved rote learning, but Rohrer and Pashler have also found similar effects with more abstract learning, like math. This is particularly troubling, the psychologists say, because most mathematics textbooks today are organized to encourage both overlearning and massing of study time, which means students are wasting a lot of precious learning time.

All we were taught about study skills at my nerdy school was to keep a clean, well-lit work space and eat a good breakfast, and most of us ignored that advice. I suspect there are a lot of reasons why I have forgotten everything about sines and secants over the years. But some scientifically-grounded learning skills couldn’t have hurt.

For more insights into the quirks of human behavior, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at

I’m of the mindset that extra drilling is beneficial, but only after a break be it 24 hours or several weeks/months.  As a college student of psychology, where the same theories and terms surface semester after semester, the ones I ‘over learnt’ I remember, and only need a refresher on, whilst the terms I only just learnt, I need to completely re-master.

I noticed that last term when I took medical terminology as a science elective.  Often, the same terms showed up chapter after chapter (usually suffices and prefices [suffixes and prefixes for the Latin-impaired]).  The ones I drilled on repeatedly, even after learning them well, I remember now, 4 months later, whilst the ones I stopped on, I have to look up (thank gods for medical dictionaries).

What are your thoughts?




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