Overlearning, Deliberate Practice, The Einstellung Effect and Interleaving

This is the third post on the Learning How To Learn course available free on Coursera. In this post I will describe the 4 things I learnt in the second part of week 2.

Overlearning

Have you ever been driving down a familiar route, only to realise you weren’t concentrating, but still drove safely? It was almost like you were on autopilot? This is possible because you have overlearned how to drive.

Overlearning is the process of continuing to learn a concept or skill you have already grasped. It takes you from competence to mastery.

The best times to overlearn are when you want to be able to do something without thinking. Overlearning is also useful for a skill you want to perform in a stressful environment, for example playing music in front of people. If you have overlearnt the song, you will make fewer mistakes and feel more confident.

You should avoid overlearning one skill when you are studying for an exam with multiple topics. In a maths exam if you can find the longest side of a triangle perfectly every time, but can’t multiply two numbers together, solve quadratics, find the area of circle… you get it. If you can do only the one thing well, you will fail the exam.

Deliberate Practice

You know when you’re studying for an exam and you see those horrible questions you know you can’t answer? Do you tend to avoid them and focus on something easier to get a little motivation boost, or do you target those big hairy questions? If you choose to attack the big hairy ones, you’re doing the right thing.

Deliberate Practice is where you purposely practice the hardest parts of what you want to learn. We have all heard the 10,000 hours rule (it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything), but just practising isn’t enough. You need to practice the right way.

If your practice is uncomfortably difficult you are doing it right. You want to be just past the level you can comfortably do. I won’t lie to you, it doesn’t feel nice at the time, but it’s the ONLY way to improve.

The Einstellung Effect

Sometimes when I am trying to debug some code, there are times where it feels like I am just slamming my head against the problem. My whole body goes tense and I KNOW if just think harder, I can figure this out. Turns out, I’m wrong.

This is the Einstellung effect, you keep trying to solve a problem the same way, despite it not working. You feel like if you just stick with the problem long enough, the solution will come to you, but it never does. You are blocked.

When you are stuck by the Einstellung effect, it’s time to walk away. Talk to a colleague about something completely unrelated, take a walk. Basically, take your mind off the problem for a bit. Let the diffuse mode takeover and make connections you can’t make when you’re too focused.

Interleaving

The logical way to study, is to do each topic, one after the other. As humans, we like order, so this makes sense to us.

Interleaving is the practice of mixing up the order of what you learn, in one session. Remember earlier I talked about how context is as important as the chunks themselves. Interleaving teaches you context.

If you want to know when to apply each skill, interleaving is the best way to do it. This could mean, instead of studying triangles for an hour, then taking a break, then doing an hour on circles, taking a break and so on. You would do 10 or 20 minutes of each topic for each hour. Jumping from topic to topic forces you to change the way you are thinking, each time you switch topic, preventing you from getting stuck in the Einstellung effect. Your exams are most likely to have the topics in a scattered order too, so it’s good practice for the real thing.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below

One thought on “Overlearning, Deliberate Practice, The Einstellung Effect and Interleaving

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