Overfitting: what is it and what does it tell us about memory?

Learning is essential for growth and improvement, and in fact, even if we don’t realize it, we learn new things every day. In learning psychology we find interesting concepts, such as overfitting.

Overfitting or overfitting it consists in that each new skill acquired must be practiced beyond the initial practice or skill, in order to achieve the automation of this skill or task.

Let’s see what studies say about this concept and how it relates to psychology and education.

    Overfitting: what is it?

    Overlearning consists of continue to study or practice a little after its acquisitionIn other words, after the initial competition has been completed. It also involves strengthening or integrating the material or skill acquired.

    It is a pedagogical concept (and also psychological, as we will see later), which argues that in the practice of a task beyond the point of mastery, over-learning it helps to fight or reduce forgetfulness and improve the transfer.

    In other words, over-learning makes it possible to extrapolate the knowledge acquired to other fields or contexts, beyond the academic field, for example (at home, in the park, in personal life, etc.).


    Some studies show that overfitting is important to keep the lesson or material learned successfully, As well as the execution of tasks.

    A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that as study participants became more expert at a task, the amount of energy used to perform this task has decreased (At the end of the study, this energy had decreased by 20%).

    On a physical level, repeating a task is known to allow “muscle memory” to perform the specific movement, which in turn helps reduce unnecessary movement and eliminate wasted energy. This can be extrapolated to learning processes, because according to some authors there is a mental correlation with “muscle memory”.

    practical example

    We think of a dancer who does the same movement countless times; in the end, you will feel like you can do it perfectly even “while you sleep”. You can repeat the movement as many times as you want, even transferring this learning to memory. this this will greatly reduce any possibility of error in each race.

    Learning psychology

    In learning psychology, the concept of over-learning takes on new meaning and is related to memory and retention of knowledge. The greater the learning (greater memorization of a task), the less forgetting is gained.

    this is linked to the famous oblivion curve by Hermann Ebbinghaus, German philosopher and psychologist. This author concluded that the more meaningful a memory, the longer it lasts. Perhaps we can even extrapolate this statement to less “academic” or theoretical, and more emotional memories (experiences lived autobiographically).

      Ebbinghaus oblivion curve

      But back to the findings of Ebbinghaus. An interesting phenomenon appears as a result of the application of standardized tests with respect to memory; if I give a test, a task or a standardized test to a child, his score in this test or this task will be normalized and at most modified according to the context (for example it is a good day for this child, the weather is appropriate, noise is advised, etc.)

      But if I deliver the same type of task consecutively every day to this child, without changing the conditions in which it is performed (same place, same time, same step, …) after a certain time there will be a phenomenon of awareness of the task.

      In other words, this child mechanically and automatically, will successfully complete the task and its results will be higher than what would be expected under normal conditions. In other words, there is overfitting which favors the success of the test.

      If we relate this to the forgetting curve, we would see that this has a very steep slope when memorizing insignificant content, but is almost flat when the content is attractive or transcendent to the child.

      Overfitting in the task

      We can understand overfitting as a positive thing, because what is reviewed and memorized over a long period of time is retained in memory longer. For example, the multiplication tables; they are difficult to forget, because since childhood they are systematically reviewed through a series of “songs” or with mnemonic rules that one learns without meaning at the beginning.

      On the other hand, there is the meaning and the transcendence of content or learning. In other words, that is to say memorizing is not the same as learning, And in education, it shows a lot.

      It is important to note that for good learning (meaningful learning) to occur, the student not only must he “memorize”, but also understand what he is learning, In addition to being able to put it into practice in their daily life in a successful and adaptive way and to relate it to previous concepts.

      And how to relate the latter to overfitting? In standardized tests, over-learning causes children to memorize without understanding the why of the content, without understanding its importance or relevance, and without relating the knowledge to the underlying prior basics.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Platja, T. (2013). What is “overfitting” and why is it so important? A + Preparation and tutoring of tests.
      • Sampascual, G. (2007). Educational psychology. 2 volumes. A D. Madrid.
      • Woolfolk, A. (1996). Educational psychology. Mexico, Prentice-Hall Hispanoamericana SA, p. 316.

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