Is it possible to “overlearn”? How often do you need to take study breaks and how long should those breaks be? Wray Herbert at We’re Only Human… reports on a study by Doug Rohrer and Harold Paschler that measured how well the participating students remembered the material tested at different times depending on their studying patterns:
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…. But whatever edge the more effortful students had at one week had completely disappeared by four weeks.
The scientists also researched the effect of the study breaks on memory:
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.