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Fiona Pollock

Zostera Ltd

Learning Consultant & Coach

Read more from Fiona Pollock

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How do we ensure our delegates over-learn?


When we want someone to be proficient at something, it would appear that just learning the skills isn’t enough.  To really master a skill or task, we need the learner to over-learn it.  Basically, we need to train them past the standard required so they can truly perform the skill/task required.

You can read more about the theory in Annie Murphy Paul’s blog post (, but to give an illustration:

Lets say you need to bake a cake, but you’ve never done it before.  If you just learn the task you’ll know:

  • - what the ingredients are
  • - how much of each is required
  • - how to weigh them out
  • - what order to mix them together in
  • - the size of tin required and how to grease it
  • - the temperature of the oven and how long to leave the cake in for
  • - how to test the cake to see if it’s ready

and by knowing and applying all this knowledge you will be able to bake a cake and it might even taste pretty good.

However, if you over-learn the task you may also know:

  • - opening the oven door too early will make your cake sink in the middle
  • - if you don’t cream the butter and sugar together well enough, your cake will have a dome in the middle
  • - if your cake is too dry that you didn’t use enough liquid/egg.

- having this extra knowledge allows you to successfully adapt to situations.  For example, if your cake recipe called for large eggs, but you - only had medium, you could add an extra one to ensure enough moisture is in the mix.

So you can quickly see the benefit of over-learning to organisations: it helps people to develop learning agility which in turns allows them to perform well in new and/or unexpected circumstances.

But how do we, as learning professionals facilitate this?

Essentially, it’s about identifying the standard of skill and knowledge that’s required for the task in question, then identifying the next step beyond that.  So for example:

If you wanted someone to be able to supervise someone else’s work, you may actually provide them with the skills and knowledge to plan, allocate and supervise the work.

Identifying the standard required to reach over-learning and providing the knowledge to hit this standard is the easy bit.  To truly embed the learning, there needs to be repetition of the task in question.  Having the opportunity to undertake the task time and again will allow the individuals knowledge-base to grow, but this alone won’t be enough.  We also need to ensure that the individual is getting feedback and positive reinforcement to allow their performance to improve.

Building these factors into learning programmes, will be tricky.  One obvious option is for line managers to delegate specific tasks to individuals in a structured and planned way.  If done properly individuals will see the delegation as what it is intended:  an opportunity for them to enhance their own performance in a supported environment through over-learning.

For this to work, however, it requires the engagement of key stakeholders, not least the individuals line manager who themselves may require some support to effectively delegate and feedback to the individual and this will present it’s own set of challenges!

Do you think there is a place for over-learning or do you think that learning ‘just-enough’ is the right strategy?  If you believe in over-learning, how do you currently deliver it in your organisation at the moment?


Author Profile Picture
Fiona Pollock

Learning Consultant & Coach

Read more from Fiona Pollock

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