Overlearning sounds like it could be a bad thing, but it isn’t. It’s something you’ve already done at some point in your life. Overlearning is why you can brush your teeth while simultaneously thinking about your plans for the day. The automatic skill of teeth-brushing is mostly unconscious and frees up your mind to think about other things. I’ve been learning all I can about the topic in anticipation of a talk I’m doing later this month at the Wisconsin EMS Conference. The talk is called “Performing When Things Get Wicked.” It’s about human performance under pressure.
One of the tactics for performing under pressure is automating psychomotor skills through a process called overlearning.
Overlearning is the process of practicing a skill after you have reached competence. Yep… after you are already competent. The benefit of overlearning a skill is that it becomes automated. Think “muscle memory.” An automated skill requires less concentration and less working memory and thus frees up your mind to focus on other things when performing in wicked environments.
4 Steps to teaching and learning psychomotor skills:
- Develop a task analysis. It should be created by an expert in the field and should be as high in detail as possible. It’s written and available to all teachers and learners. It’s the standard and is referenced step-by-step to guide the practice.
- Prompt expert feedback. Be careful how you practice because the early work you do here will become permanent. Stop the learner immediately when they deviate from the standard. As a culmination to this practice, demonstrate competence through timed skills performance.
- Practice overlearning. Once competence is gained, start the heavy repetitions in a calm, controlled environment. This is overlearning and leads to automaticity of a skill (muscle memory). Now that they have trusted competence, the learner should practice on low-fidelity manikins in the lab or through visualization in their “mind simulator.” This is hard work. Motivate the learner by explaining the benefits of overlearning and let them know stress exposure is next.
- Begin Stress Exposure. Lastly, begin creating variable environments for practice. Slowly increase the challenges. This is called stress exposure and the performance here will indicate whether on not the learner has truly automated a skill.