What Is “Overthinking”?

In my ongoing struggle to help my students make sense of their own mistakes, I sometimes hear them say that the reason they misapplied a skill is that they were “overthinking.”  I’ve always had a hard time responding to this.  I’m not even sure I know exactly what they mean by it, and when I try to have the conversation, I get the impression that there are so many hidden assumptions that we’re not communicating well.

I want them to focus on the quality of their thinking, not the amount, so I find the conversation frustrating.  If I were to try to put myself in their place, here are some possible translations:

  • Is their meaning of “overthinking” similar to my meaning of “close reading”?
  • “Over”-thinking… too much thinking?
  • Thinking carefully might bring up new possibilities that you can neither support nor contradict.  If we’re in class when it happens, it probably causes perplexity.  If the student is in a test when it happens, their inability to either test the new possibilities or ask questions about them is probably really frustrating — a frustration that they blame on the thinking itself
  • Thinking carefully (or a lot?) makes you start noticing complexity and nuance.  If you are noticing them for the first time, they may distract your mind away from the things you used to think about, making a familiar landscape seem unfamiliar.
  • Is this related to the level of abstraction?  If students are used to reasoning within an abstraction that they accepted but did not build (in other words, they did not choose to simplify or remove information — the model was given to them that way), then thinking closely might cause them to notice one of the other “rungs” of the abstraction ladder, which could change the pattern of their reasoning.

I’m going to try to pay closer attention to this in the coming year.  In the meantime, it came up in class today and I was finally pleased with how I responded.

We had just finished doing the bicycle experiment inspired by Rebecca Lawson’s research.  Students look at  stick-drawing bicycles and have to pick the one that most resembles an actual bike.  Lots of people were surprised at how difficult it was.  One brave students shared “I don’t know why, but I thought the chain ran from wheel to wheel.”  We talked a bit about how easy it is to feel familiar with things, and genuinely know a lot about them, while not noticing what we don’t know.  I then moved on to the next topic — the importance of double-checking what we read, hear, and remember.

I was talking about how memory can be misleading.  I used the example of the feeling you have when you walk into a test feeling confident, then sit down and realize you can’t solve the question.   The same student fell back on what seemed to be a tried-and-true way of thinking, commenting, “Isn’t it true that a lot of times you overthink things, and you should just stick with your first instinct?”

My reply was to ask gently, “How did it work out with the bicycle?”

I went on to say that what I expected from them was not more thinking nor less thinking, but technician thinking.  Too much food can make you sick and so can too little.  The wrong kind of food for your situation can also be bad.  Similarly, our goal is not certain quantity of thought, but a certain kind — particular habits of mind based on particular specialized skills and ideas.  We’ll see how this supports our conversations in the future.


  1. Hi Mylene,

    Welcome back to a new year! Did you get your half time as requested or are you back full tilt?

    I really enjoyed reading the incredibly prepared notes on your Assessing presentation. And thank you for your genorosity in freeing me to be where i needed to be, leaving you on your own. Getting the feedback from our Trades colleagues on the positive aspect of seeing one of their own facilitating was interesting and something we need to listen to.

    Your blog on ‘overthinking’ ‘intrigued me. The following are my comments/questions. Is overthinking the idea of concentrating so profoundly on the steps/parts/sections that the natural flow of the overall action or activity gets lost? I’m thinking here of its use by elite athletes. How is ‘overthinking’ connected to the pattern of skill development from unconsciously incompetent through consciously incompetent and consciouly competent to unconsciouly competent? Does ‘overthinking’ happen in specific areas of skill development only? Interesting topic!

    On another note, once your life gets less busy, I’d like to have a follow up meeting with you to dialogue on Assessing.


  2. Hi Maria, thanks for your thoughts. You raise some interesting points about the pattern of skill development and the awkwardness that happens in the transition to conscious competence. One of my students the other day raised the point that the habit of questioning could help identify hidden assumptions — I think that that feeling of suddenly becoming aware of something we’ve taken for granted can be unpleasant, especially if we’re not expecting it.

    On “flow,” I’m intrigued by this line of thought: The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow. An excerpt:

    It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

    • I don’t think this is an either/or, but a both/and. Two musical references come to mind. The Mamas and Papas (I’m dating myself!) used to say that when there were ‘on’ they could hear another voice added to theirs (which they named and I’ve forgotten). It didn’t happpen often, and only after much practice. They called it magical. It could be called flow or excellence or blend or magic. It did come as a result of unconscious competence I believe. And to get there you need lots of deliberate practice. The same could be said of The Beatles, who were so polished when they came to America where their new sound seem natural and fully formed- the result of literally years of practice in German nightclubs. I like your student’s idea of questioning for assumptions. Am I overthinking this topic? Could it be simpler than the dialogue suggests (like just too much detail in my brain at a specific moment)? You open the door to interesting musings Mylene.

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