Teaching interventions: Pre and over learning

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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The one teaching intervention that could most benefit a range of students, including EAL and SEN, is – according to Daniel Sobel – the use of pre-learning and over-learning. He discusses how these concepts can be introduced

I have mentioned “pre-learning” and “over-learning” a few times in previous articles for SecEd (see below for a link to my previous articles).

I once conducted a very unscientific poll among the Inclusion Expert team, asking the question: “If you could choose one intervention to supplement teaching all over the country, which would it be?”

I was unsurprised when the answer came back. All those questioned agreed on one clear, simple idea – do pre and over-learning.

When I mentioned this response to a group of headteachers, I was interested to see that they agreed – this was the intervention of choice. They noted the simplicity of this intervention, and that it requires neither specialist technology nor equipment.

Put simply, pre and over-learning involves exposing the student to words and ideas that are about to come up in the lesson, and going over them again after the lesson. Clever and straight-forward.

However, getting it to really work for the student takes some consideration. The purpose of this article is to explain some of the reasoning behind how this works, the conditions for its best use, and why it is so darn good.

A word of warning

Before I kick off, it is important for me to emphasise the one thing that gets in the way of any good idea for a school: initiative-itis. This is a crippling disease which thrives off senior leaders and indeed policy-makers coming up with a fanciful plan and not getting the buy-in of the teachers.

However, I am going to proceed under the assumption that you have done a fantastic job of getting your teachers on board with this.

Flawed intervention?

When I was at school, the idea of an additional intervention was something like “quiet reading in the corner with a local volunteer grandma”. There was no baseline assessment or meeting of targets, just good ol’ reading practice. Since that time, we have evolved an entire industry of computer-based, visually stunning, psychologically inventive and pedagogically magical off-the-shelf interventions that have all been tried, tested and proven to rapidly develop some aspect of student learning.

My explanation as to why these interventions rarely boost curriculum attainment is because they don’t stick to my golden rules of good pedagogy:

  • Based in the actual classroom and on the curriculum material.
  • Measurable in terms of engagement with the curriculum and participation in the classroom.
  • Doesn’t distract from the curriculum but directly fosters a more positive engagement with the class material.
  • Boosts self-esteem and motivation to learn the curriculum among peers in the classroom.

Imagine: the students are studying volcanoes and an identified student is removed from this lesson to practice reading about Billy the Goat. After a term, the teacher notices that the student’s reading-comprehension age has risen, yet he knows nothing about the difference between magma and lava like his peers and he still doesn’t volunteer to read because he is only confident when studying in the corridor with his teaching assistant.

Pre and over-learning adhere to my golden intervention rules. Pre and over-learning seem to directly address the full range of SEN needs very well, from preparing dyslexic students in advance about how to make sense of the letters, to students with ADHD who will struggle less to follow what is going on in the class.

More significantly, though, is the practising of language acquisition and recall, which is the predominant assessment in SATs and GCSEs, and arguably the biggest deficit in students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nothing can replace effective quality first teaching using the Teachers’ Standards. But pre and over-learning are very clear examples of the application of these: establishing an effective learning environment, quality assessment, differentiated planning and effective deployment of support staff.


Over-learning is the continued training and education of a skill or a topic after the lesson. Studies of over-learning go back to the 19th century, but until recently the neural mechanisms underpinning over-learning remained unclear.

In a recent paper in Nature Neuroscience (January 2017), researchers found that even brief periods (up to 20 minutes) of over-learning after a task led to improved performance.

This occurred because the over-learning resulted in a more stable neural state, which was less prone to disruption by the arrival of new information.
In other words, putting new stuff in your brain can lead to dumping other information to make space, but over-learning helps it feel more at home.

An implication of this is that simply coming back to a task a few times later on can enable the teacher to be sure that what could have been an initially errorless performance by the learner was genuinely the result of mastery, and not just a one-off.

In addition, as information fades after a month or so, over-learning needs to be combined with semi-regular spaced practice for the optimal retention of skills and knowledge – in other words, teachers should revisit topics every month, rather than revise them only prior to tests or exams at the end of the year.


All pre-learning activities are aimed at helping students to develop levels of curiosity and interest before they learn new material. Pre-learning can introduce vocabulary, ideas and so on to help students hit the ground running.

Pre-learning can set up the condition where the main lesson actually becomes a period of over-learning. The same cognitive and neural mechanisms that support over-learning during a lesson therefore also support the efficacy of pre-learning. This may be especially useful for learners with low prior knowledge, students with poor working memory, or those with any SEN.

In action...

Together with Nathan Atkinson, a Global Top 50 teacher and author of Teaching Mastery, I have noted here the best ways to maximise your use of pre and over-learning:

  • Measure, assess and evaluate: start by carefully assessing a baseline – how easily students pick up language and engage. Then trial pre and over-learning over three weeks and assess the impact. Make sure you understand what is working and what isn’t – and why.
  • Do it in the classroom, rather than outside the classroom.
  • Focus on skills and ideas rather than just keywords. Get students to draw or source a picture of the new word or relate it to a story. Abstract words are tough for anyone. Some students may benefit from creating their own visual dictionary.
  • Use each task as a framework for teacher-teaching assistant liaison, include structures of forthcoming lessons and details about how identified students are acquiring new language and engaging with the topic.
  • Use pre-learning as a hook for a new topic, and to motivate them to want to discover more. Motivation and engagement go together. Fun, excitement and mystery and linking to favourite icons and heroes can help.
  • You don’t have to, but try using technology: record sentences on devices that can be used during lesson time. Videos and audio can all help with language acquisition. If you are brave enough, get them to compose a song using the key words.
  • Homework is an over-learning opportunity if designed properly. This is another topic in itself, but be careful about introducing new ideas in homework just because you are desperately trying to finish the topic in time.
  • Initial pre-learning should ideally be done twice – once a couple of weeks in advance and again just prior to the lesson.
  • Over-learning should be done after the lesson and again every few weeks. Keep coming back to the learning – don’t let it drop until two weeks before the end-of-year assessments.


Pre and over-learning can be used for many types of student, but EAL is the most obvious. I also recommend this intervention to schools as a means to narrow the gap.

With the right conditions and using some of the latest neuroscience as a guide, your students will get a huge amount out of pre and over-learning, and their results will improve.

The newest bit for most schools will be the idea that the curriculum studied in September is not something you can leave until March to revisit, it is something you need to keep coming back to every month.

I am excited when the schools that my team and I support save an enormous amount of time and money by removing interventions which don’t build the direct engagement with the curriculum and they are surprised when they see the simple but powerful results of pre and over-learning on both the students – and the teachers.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via http://bit.ly/2jwoKP8

Further reading

Overlearning hyperstabilizes a skill by rapidly making neurochemical processing inhibitory-dominant, Shibata et al, Nature Neuroscience, January 2017: https://go.nature.com/2IsrRnm


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