Overlearning: How to Practice Fundamental Skills to the Brain-Friendly Level of Automaticity

This is my final post in a series on memory. So far, I’ve given you three ways to improve your child’s working memory, improve her retention of important information through spaced practice, and ideas for you to help make information more memorable via focus, memory priming, and metaphor. My next post after this will be about brain-friendly spellng techniques for difficult words, but here, I’ll introduce you to overlearning. 

The Two Basic Levels of Knowing Something

There are many levels that describe how well we know something we’ve learned, but I want to focus on the two final levels of learning something: mastery and automaticity. Throughout this post, I’ll talk about these levels in the context of a child learning her multiplication facts, though they apply to any subject.

1. Mastery

In education, “mastery” has a different meaning from how we often use the word in daily life. For example, a “master” chef means a cook with superior skills who oversees the kitchen. He understands food in an intuitive, almost uncanny way. His knowledge and quick skills win him respect and deference.

In education, the term is entirely different. Psychologists define mastery as recalling and applying about 70% of the material you have learned. Not very impressive, is it? Mastery also suggests it takes effort to bring the material to mind and requires you to pay a lot of attention to the task. If your child has mastered her multiplication facts, she knows them, but not well. So, if she has mastered the multiplication facts, she works hard to recall the answers, isn’t highly accurate, and probably doesn’t like recalling them because it takes some significant effort.

2. Automaticity

    Now let’s compare mastery to automaticity. Automaticity means you know the material to the highest level of accuracy— 100%. It also suggests you can recall the material effortlessly. So, if your child has automated her math facts, she knows them well, and she can easily and quickly recall them. Stay tuned! Later in the article, you can download a free game to help your child learn her math facts to automaticity. Even if your child doesn’t need this game, look at it because it shows you the principles behind building any skill to automaticity.

    The Power of Overlearning.

    There are now decades of research to show that learning to automaticity produces a superior performance because the first few times we practice something we form a fragile memory at best. The added practice we put in strengthens the memory and makes it much easier for the brain to pull out or retrieve. This deeper level makes learning much easier. It is also helpful since material learned to an automatic level is more accessible when you are stressed, like when taking a test. So, automaticity can be especially beneficial to kids who are prone to stressing over test-taking.

    So, of course, automaticity for some skills is what you want for your child. The question is: How do you get her from mastery to automaticity? In a word, “overlearning.”

    What is Overlearning?

    As the name implies, overlearning is learning beyond mastery. You rehearse it repeatedly. You may be thinking of musicians and athletes. Yes! They understand that overlearning their music pieces and athletic plays is essential to improving their performance. And like them, overlearning is what can lead your child to the deep level of automaticity.

    Won’t My Child Resist This Extra Work?

    Kids sometimes ask me, “Why do I have to spend more time practicing my multiplication facts when I already know them?” I explain that while they do know most of their facts, there are a few they don’t know, and they are working far too hard to recall the ones they do. They are at a level of mastery. I tell them I don’t like to see them work this hard and that I want them to complete their homework faster, so we are working toward a deeper level of learning, automaticity.

    I’ve yet to have a student resist me. They feel reassured that I see how hard they are working and are relieved that I want to make math easier for them. I can recall students at the mastery level who came in highly resistant to working with me who I won over quickly by my desire to make school easier for them. No one had ever told them, “You’re working too hard.” Usually, they’d heard they were not working hard enough, even though the mastery level requires a lot of hard work.

    How Does Overlearning Build Memory?

    When you overlearn something, you rehearse it until you know it without thinking. By repeatedly rehearsing the material, you’re helping your brain develop a rich memory trace for the information. A memory trace in your child’s brain is what allows her to recall something. You need to help your child build robust memory traces. There are many ways to do this. See my post on spaced practice for some other good ideas. We create a memory trace when we learn something and can recall it. Each time you rehearse the memory, you make the trace more vigorous, and this makes it easier for your brain to access it more quickly and effortlessly. The repetition makes it a dependable, sturdy memory.

    Overlearning: Practice Until You Know it Without Thinking.

    Overlearning enhances performance because what you’re learning becomes second nature; it just “pops” right out of your head, which allows you to focus on other things. So, knowing their multiplication facts to the level of automaticity frees our kids up to focus on the math task they are trying to accomplish, say finding the area of a rectangle, rather than stopping to consider (and hope) 8 X 7 is 56. Or is it 64?

    Your child only has so much memory space at any given time. Some psychologists refer to it as “mental desk space.” By overlearning the math facts, your child frees up mental desk space so she can focus on and remember the new concept she is working on.

    Quick Story

    Years ago, when I was first learning about brain training, I worked with a couple of high school students who attended a highly prestigious private school. Needless to say, they also had the best tutors money could buy, but they continued to struggle in math. While working with them, I discovered that they hadn’t automated the multiplication facts. We worked on this as well as their general processing speed and working memory skills. By the next quarter, each student had gone up a full grade level. Overlearning their multiplication facts was an important piece in their grade-level performance jump because it freed them up to focus and learn the math concepts they were trying to learn. This story is one of my favorites to share because I never worked with them on any of their actual math homework, yet our work had a significant impact on their grades.

    Who Uses Overlearning Well?

    As mentioned earlier, musicians and athletes understand this concept well. We can learn a lot from them. One of my favorite researchers is K. Anders Ericsson, a well-renowned researcher in the field of expertise and human performance. Ericsson studies experts and says their ability to store critical facts and strategies is what allows them to perform at a higher level. He says their willingness to overlearn by doing deliberate, targeted practice is what makes them extraordinarily successful. Experts automate key skills; novices don’t.

    Overlearning is not just for the physical realm. We can apply this research to academics as well. Unfortunately, most curricula and teachers are not teaching kids about it or how and when to use it.

    Do you know someone who could benefit from this article? Be sure to share!

    What Kinds of Information Should My Child Overlearn?

    By now you know your child needs to automate multiplication facts. Additionally, she needs to automate the foundational skills for any subject because she’ll need them to use the higher-level skills she will develop in that subject.

    For example, in reading, WowzaBrain automates all the basics: like letter sounds and the 100 most common words known as “sight words.” If a child just masters the basic skills, which sadly is all many reading curricula require, she may struggle with learning to read for years simply because she didn’t reach the level of automaticity with these foundational skills that overlearning affords. For kids who struggle to learn to read, overlearning the foundational skills can mean the difference between feeling confident and curious and feeling ashamed for struggling with reading.

    In many subjects like science, it’s worth automating vocabulary words for each unit. Students who can quickly access the meanings of the concepts they learned earlier can make more rapid, deeper connections between them and ones they’re currently learning. This ease with thinking about and applying science concepts comes from being able to apply the terms automatically. If your child is struggling in a class, this may be due to a mastered rather than automated level of understanding of the subject’s key concepts.  

    Overlearning allows the brain to go on cruise control with basic concepts so it can make richer and deeper connections with new or more complex ideas.

    What Doesn’t My Child Need to Overlearn?

    Overlearning takes a lot of time and effort. So, you want to be thoughtful about what you ask your child to overlearn. For example, I’ve seen curricula and teachers insist that kids overlearn all the United States state capitals. It’d be nice to have this ready mental reference, but I don’t think it’s worth overlearning since it’s so easy to look up simple facts like these. It’s your call, but particularly for kids who struggle to memorize, be selective with what you ask them to overlearn and use the strategies recommended in this post to help her do it.

    Be Selective With What You Ask Your Child to Overlearn.

    What is Important to Remember When Overlearning?

    You can help your child build a deeper, more fruitful level of learning by rehearsing efficiently and challenging her gently to retrieve the material a little faster each time she practices. Here are three critical components to overlearning:

    1. Seek Accuracy First

      Pilots and many others in life-or-death fields learn to be accurate before they seek to build speed. In training, their mantra is “accuracy before speed.” This instruction makes a lot of sense because once the brain learns something, it can really stick. The last thing you want to do is practice error. So this is where you, as your child’s coach, are so essential. You need to make sure your child is accurate. It’s impossible for a classroom teacher to reach every child on every skill. Sadly, I’ve seen kids practice mixing up their b’s and d’s and misspelling words for years before someone like me pointed this out them. This experience was unfortunate because they had to “unlearn” a deeply embedded error. Look closely at your child’s classwork and homework. Are they practicing the new skill they’re learning with accuracy? Mom, Dad, this is one of your most important jobs. Check your child’s work daily to ensure she is not practicing errors.

      2. Time It

        Once your child is accurate, not only do you want to rehearse it, but you want her to get faster at it. Improved speed in recalling the material is one of the most reliable indicators that she is overlearning something efficiently. In our WowzaBrain multiplication facts game, you’ll see that it’s not enough to just repeatedly rehearse the facts. I ask my students to keep playing until they can do the whole deck of cards in a minute or less. Try it. This speed is extremely fast. Anyone who can play the game at this quickly has automated their multiplication facts.

         3. Use a Metronome

        Trainers of all sorts, including speech pathologists and athletic trainers, have used the metronome for years. It’s not just for musicians. Hermann Ebbinghaus first used it in the late 19th century to understand how to improve learning, and at WowzaBrain we use it in almost all of our training. You can download a free metronome from your phone’s app store.

        Trainers of All Sorts Use Metronomes.

        It sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? Recalling information you’ve just learned to the beat of a metronome? I’d encourage you to try it.  It’s challenging to recall information quickly, but it’s even more challenging to recall it rhythmically at faster and faster speeds. Psychologists call this a “load.” It’s like when a football player wears a weighted vest during practice sessions. During the game, without the load, everything seems a little lighter and easier for him. We do the same thing mentally by using the metronome. When your child uses her automated math facts without the metronome, completing her algebra assignment will seem lighter and easier. The multiplication facts will effortlessly pop into her head, and she will get through her work more accurately and quickly because she’d been “loaded” when she practiced. I’ve had students beam at me when they completed a recall task like multiplication or reading sight words at 100 beats per minute (bpm) or faster. Students realize they’ve accomplished something significant, and it impacts their confidence as well as their performance.

        How Can I Tell if My Child Has Overlearned the Material?

        I’ve found with younger kids, those around five to eight years of age, performing with nearly a 100% accuracy at 80 bpm indicates they have overlearned, and thus, have automated the material. Older students usually need to hit a 100 bpm, though many are capable of much more speed, even 200 bpm!

        One of the best ways to tell if your child has overlearned the material is how easily she’ll be able to recall it. She won’t resist when you ask her to recall it because it’s effortless. In fact, she may enjoy showing you she knows it and how smoothly she can do it. We all like to look good.

        Another way you can tell is that your child will want to keep practicing. Many kids love the feeling of quickly retrieving material that once was exceedingly difficult to retrieve. It makes them feel smart. For many kids, sadly, this is a new feeling that they are hungry for.  Even though they have reached the point of automaticity, I love to tell my students to shoot for those faster speeds because I know their confidence needs a boost. After a while, with an exasperated smile, I say they must stop because I can’t match their recall speed, and they’re making me look bad! You should see the pride and satisfaction on their faces.

        As I promised, here's your free multiplication facts game.


        1. Automating foundational skills like multiplication is critical to your child’s school success.
        1. Overlearning is the tool that helps your child reach the expertise level of automaticity.
        1. Too many curricula don’t explain or train a child to automate foundational skills. You can help your child with this.
        1. Overlearning takes a lot of work so be selective on what your child overlearns.
        1. Rehearse accurately. Then, gently challenge your child to retrieve material more quickly to the beat of a metronome. These are effective ways to overlearn any material.

        Do you want to learn more about how your child learns? Join our mailing list (below), and we'll let you know of new blog posts and announcements. We never try to sell you stuff through our emails. 

        Have questions? Ask me below. I’d love to help.

        Bridget Mosley, MEd, is a WowzaBrain cofounder and a Cognitive Learning Specialist with more than 30 years’ experience as an educator, reading clinic director, and parent workshop speaker. She is a die-hard fan of parents who believe they can help their kids overcome learning challenges.

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