overlearning and college education

One of my beliefs, born out by research like Arum and Roska’s, is that people don’t learn or retain much from college. There are many reasons why, but one is that colleges don’t believe in “overlearning,” which means that you study a topic so much that it becomes automatic.

Consider the typical college class. They meet two or three times a week. Students either skip the readings, skim them, or quickly forget them. Unless it’s part of the grade, students are often absent from class. The exams typically cover the material, but then you move on to new stuff. Many students are allowed to move on with marginal grades. The opposite of “overlearning.” Colleges offer “barelylearning.”

If colleges were serious about learning, the entire system of lectures and semesters would be dumped. Occasional passive lectures and marginal grades would be abolished. Instead, we’d probably have very short “modules” where students did nothing but math, or writing, all day, every day for a few weeks or a months. Complete immersion so people could get completely absorbed into the subject and learn it so it becomes second hand. It’s the way that learning is done in institutions where mastery matters, like medical schools (e.g., rotations) or the military (e.g., the system of “special schools” – immersion).

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Written by fabiorojas

August 23, 2013 at 12:10 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

17 Responses

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  1. Although they are rare, there are colleges with different schedules that seem to be focused more on immersion. Colorado College comes to mind.



    August 23, 2013 at 12:22 am

  2. That’s an interesting point about med school and the military. But both of those situations are pull-the-trigger, and the training is designed mostly to get you to pull the trigger (as it happens, your first instinct when faced with killing a man is not to pull the trigger, nor is I imagine your first instinct when making hugely risky diagnoses to just grab your gut and commit).

    Critical and contemplative thinking are the opposite of learning a rote skill, no? If the majority of the grade distribution is just there to get a Bourgeois Society certificate and go get in line for professional jobs, what’s the biggie?


    Graham Peterson

    August 23, 2013 at 12:42 am

  3. “Critical and contemplative thinking are the opposite of learning a rote skill, no?”

    It’s not about rote skill vs. deep thinking. It’s about knowing a topic so well that it becomes automatic. Andif you ask, why bother in a credential society, it’s because I just care about learning. Go figure.



    August 23, 2013 at 2:14 am

  4. Modular learning is very common in the British and Australian higher education system. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that it is any more effective than the system that you describe.


    Carl May

    August 23, 2013 at 3:09 am

  5. I felt that your viewpoint was somewhat accurate but that there are parts of the picture that you are missing. One citation I need to make is P. Bourdieu’s Reproduction in Education…, and his The State Nobility. These will give the reader the requisite knowledge to understand the realpolitik of education. Anyway, the University system addresses a great variety of individuals who have either self-selected or been sent to post-high school education. Many do not survive their first year, and many do not graduate. So, this is a key part of understanding the educational system. You are right that mastery learning is not required, but comprehension is required. The lecturer or professor is saddled with the task of exposing the students to the field through their personal understanding of academic freedom. Professors are formally evaluated and informally assessed in terms of gaining a reputation. One of the major constraints on professors is not to ‘overteach’ or guide students too carefully. The onus is on the student to research, but firstly to complete the required readings. However, universities have been requiring greater rigor and running the professors through professional development exercises frequently. There is more scrutiny on professors and especially on the majority, on the adjuncts. Tenure is a critical incident in a professor’s career that requires tremendous sensitivity to the tenured faculty of their particular setting, in spite of the competitive context, and also requires maintaining a teaching load and a publication record. Granted some professors squish thru on the basis of their social capital or network connections, but generally, research and publication requires funding approval, colleagues who will authentically network and therefore have a modicum of respect and some real ability. Also, teaching requires meeting the expectations of the upper faculty, the students, and the formal evaluations. It also requires staying out of trouble which implies having a certain ability to defuse or control drama. One thing to keep in mind when you go to university: the school’s reputation is important but the professor’s skill in teaching is much more important individually for the student’s actual achievement. Hope this helps your understanding.


    Fred Welfare

    August 23, 2013 at 3:50 am

  6. I think my comment went into cyberspace again, unless I messed up. Anyway another modular one-course-at-a-time school is Cornell College in Iowa, not to be confused with a school of similar name in New York.



    August 23, 2013 at 4:11 am

  7. I was actually talking to J. Roksa about this and I mentioned how professors let students control the conversation on higher education. If you look at the broader media and policy discussion on higher ed, it’s all concerns of students (which doesn’t include learning) like financing higher ed, managing increasing debt, and eventually finding a job and showing up at your first day of work with all these “skills.” (Can you imagine if students led campus wide protests because they were not learning enough!) Perhaps the absence of professors at the center of these issues begins in the 60s, when professors stepped aside and let students take over. Since then, professors and academics generally have been absent from the broader discussion, and those who do talk about learning in higher education are rather conservative like in the 80s, if academics brought up what were the best books to learn from, they were dismissed as conservative and racist. Today it seems the only people defending learning are those in the humanities and that’s because they have to defend their whole existence! However, Academically Adrift has shown that courses in humanities are linked to greater learning gains, which should help their defense. But, I am disheartened that those in the humanities have to fight this battle alone without university-wide support from faculty in other disciplines and fields.



    August 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm

  8. I do not notice much of a push by students to control the discussion. In the 60’s, the protests were led by graduate students and faculty, particularly new faculty whose work loads were increased and whose status was degraded. Generally, in the 60’s and 70’s, students objected to the increased rigor and to the massification of classes, for example, at Ohio State U. (the largest university) most classes were large lecture halls numbering in the hundreds. I also feel that agitation, crime, and drugs became more frequent on campuses from the role played by students who either quit classes or simply went thru the motions. Again, I refer you to J. Bourdieu whose work might lead you to critical analyses of education, e.g. Apple or Giroux. T. Parsons wrote The University System in which he spells out the basis of the crisis in higher ed due to the increasing cognitivism and complexity of course materials which led to the “expressions” of student revolt, apathy, etc. Anyway, when I attended college in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was rarely a peep from students about the lousy financial assistance: students might receive the Federal Pell Grant and a State grant, each school might also offer some discount for needs based students. The rest was paid by student loans. I rarely met students in those days who had taken loans and this form of financing your education meant that admissions into higher level programs, masters degrees or PhD programs, was critical. I feel that economic capital plays a large role in admissions to these higher status programs. By 1984, I actually objected to my school’s policy to provide educational assistance to black students from out of country whereas I received none. The decisions related to financial aid are closely related to admission decisions, imo. There is obviously a gap between students whose parents or work site provide their tuition, and those who take loans and those who also receive tuition assistance. On the other hand, the rating and ranking scheme of departments concerning ‘who’s the best’ hardly depends on the type department, imo. Individuals study and they are probably motivated by their professors and course content more than by school reputation or department status! In actuality, an individual can learn everything necessary due to their own determination and effort as long as they have a library card with access to the electronic peiodicals! It certainly helps to have a professor guiding you thru the field but in any case, individual effort is critical. Generally speaking, we live in an anti-intellectual environment in which critical reading and comprehension are rejected. Trolling is the name of the game!!


    Fred Welfare

    August 23, 2013 at 3:12 pm

  9. I like the idea of modular classes in many circumstances (Evergreen State College is another institution that does this, though in a very different way). I think they’d be amazing for languages or service-learning-based courses, for example. But I do suspect that they don’t work as well for everything. On the one hand, I suspect that in some cases, students would be more likely to burn out and drop out if they were spending all day, every day on a subject (ever stood in front of a classroom after students have been crunching data in SPSS for 2 hours?). On the other hand, some types of projects, like developing a research proposal or writing a thesis–might require more time for reflection than is possible in a modular course. Finally, it is of course harder for students to build a course schedule around their work schedule with this sort of modality.



    August 23, 2013 at 4:54 pm

  10. I agree with Fabio’s main idea. Fr.Guido Sarducci made the same point nearly 40 years ago (here). Learn enough to pass or even do well on the exam, then move on. That’s not the kind of learning we hope for.
    I sometimes ask students if they’ve encountered, say, Weber or social integration or some other name or concept, in a previous course. Some say yes. But when I ask what they remember about it, silence. And they seem not at all embarrassed about their lack of “long term” (i.e. >1 semester) learning. (Your mileage, especially if you are at an elite school, may vary. I sure as hell hope it does.)


    Jay Livingston

    August 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  11. I agree that retention of course information is generally poor except for those clear take-home messages, e.g. discussion of the unconscious in a psychology course or the term attribution in a social psychology course. This is of course minimal. Writing papers can develop depth of understanding better than testing, imo. But, college courses have yet to engage in the editing process which would require extra work by the professor – as it stands, the student is required to edit on their own and given a one-time grade. This is a weakness of the system from grammar school on up. I have noticed that course content is tied to the professor and is often not generalized and that recognition is more common than recall and that argument formation is usually wholly lacking; also application of knowledge which I think is the most important aspect of learning is often not developed – there is no practical application of the information learned from many courses. When you consider that in a Law School the student is frequently writing briefs and so develops a skill, you might think that students improve their writing skills during college but very frequently the students do not refer to the given information in texts when they make a claim, so you have to wonder what the school’s curriculum is about or whether there is any evaluation of curriculum implementation. OTOH, I notice that undergraduate posters at professional meetings are relevant and interesting often following a set method for presentation which implies direct instruction. One of the main ideas that students have to learn to make progress in the system is how to cut-off their inquiry and just develop an area of interest, otherwise, a field may appear so complex and deep, and most of them are, that there is no way to grasp it and communicate effectively a point of view. I think this is where professorial guidance is critical but alas usually lacking. The student cannot simply copy professional skills, they have to be developed therefore, collaboration is desirable but this involves a social relationship or social capital which leads to a form of relationship which our universities do not consider normative. This leads me into the area of informal learning: what are students learning in addition to their coursework for which their quarantined living area (the university) is so meticulously supervised. Social interaction and networking by various mechanisms is occurring but probably not because of similar study habits or academic topics of interest. Just getting through the course materials and passing exams is for many students a struggle especially when they have to form their identity around their attitude towards college study and toward the traditions of their culture which expect particular role behaviors that may be frustrating. Mechanical effort works for some and others get caught up into moral crisis or identity formation issues which are part of the socialization experience that college offers. The deep processing that we expect, to explain prior explanations for example, depends on teaching frameworks that are experiential, practical or address problems, and that involve research and writing.


    Frederick Welfare

    August 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm

  12. @Fabio:
    “It’s not about rote skill vs. deep thinking. It’s about knowing a topic so well that it becomes automatic.”

    Fair point: one of the goals of liberal arts education is to make critical thinking automatic, e.g. training a sixth sense in spotting hidden assumptions, catering arguments to one’s audience, or acquiring a back-stock of knee-jerk facts to bounce future, post-college information off of. We hope these become automatic to the educated person, and concerted immersion may help. Students seem to get that when they take summer intensive courses, but at least anecdotally, neither students nor professors seem to feel that the training improves.

    And of course I care about learning: I’m reading Morris Kline’s old book on pedagogy and the history of uni’s right now. My argument isn’t that college is mostly vacuous class sorting and that’s yippidy-do-da.

    My argument is that since studies showing that retention of facts and of measurable technical skills are low, we shouldn’t just jump to the conclusion that the teachers are pretending to teach and students pretending to learn. Just because colleges aren’t doing what we thought they were doing doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything. They’re clearly a commitment device, whereby students signal with sacrifice of income and opportunity costs that they’re suitable for jobs which require similar time commitments to acquire native, explicit, and tacit organizational knowledge. Students learn to think, write (if poorly), persuade, interact with formal decorum, place themselves and the world in a bit of historical, social, and economic context, and of course obey.

    The return to these intangibles is enormous at least in terms of economic productivity, and probably in terms of social and political innovation as well.



    August 24, 2013 at 12:11 am

  13. I have been reading excellent Stanovich (but not enough) and it seems that one might learn what I would call meta-skills and Stanovich calls thinking styles: actively open minded thinking, active search for information, etc. Even if you don’t remember stuff, you learn to approach problems in a different ways, you learn to be more (“academically”) rational.

    Also, attending college teaches strength of will and self control (to carry out cognitively challenging but tediously boring tasks), which probably pretty much predicts how well one will do in a professional job.



    August 24, 2013 at 6:53 am

  14. But what topics would be on the “over learning” list?
    Curious to hear what everyone would put on the list?

    Basic math and writing, I suppose.
    Beyond that it gets trickier I think. Isn’t US undergrad mostly about “learning to learn” and “finding out what you’d like to specialise in”?



    August 24, 2013 at 5:58 pm

  15. […] overlearning and college education ( […]


  16. Was reminded of one of my favorite quotes of all time (as a justification for bounded rationality and socially embedded, tacit knowledge). I think it also supports Fabio’s case nicely.

    “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copybooks, and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses and must only be made at decisive moments.”

    -Alfred North Whitehead



    August 27, 2013 at 8:21 am

  17. 7rin

    August 31, 2013 at 2:59 pm

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