Interleave Practice to Transform Learning

Icon squareby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The sequence in which information or skills are rehearsed can have an influence on recall, memory, or mastery of learning.  Interleaving is an approach to learning where several related items are mixed together in a single study session.  “When practice is interleaved rather than blocked, the practice of different skills is intermixed rather than grouped by type” (Taylor & Rhorer, 2009).  In doing so, the learner will focus on recalling and making connections between the items.  As a result, interleaved practice breaks free from rote memorization by ensuring the distribution of information is not a factor in learning.

One way to help explain the benefits for interleaved practice can be found in music rehearsal.  When learning a new instrument, one approach to learning new chords is to mix up the sequence in which they are played.  For example, when learning a I IV V chord sequence in the key of G (G, C, D), rehearsing different variations of those chords can help a person learn them independently from the initial chord sequence.  So, instead of playing the chord sequence GCD, a person would mix up the sequence (DGC, CDG, CDCG, etc.) or incorporate previously learned chords (GDEC, GDAE, etc.).

When items are mixed up or interwoven together in a non-sequential (or blocked) ways, we are forced to recall and re-think how the items are connected.  Interleaved practice also causes us to think about – or retrieve – each item in new ways independent from the order they are introduced.  This retrieval practice, is at the heart of learning and a key competent to procedural memory and helps learners distinguish between similar concepts or items. (Taylor and Rohrer, 2009).

The benefits of interleaved practice on procedural memory have been well researched.  While I mentioned how interleaved practice can benefit learning music (Carter & Grahn, 2016), the practice has been shown to help learn history facts (Carpenter, Pashler, & Cepeda, 2009), as well as math concepts (Rhoher, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015; Rhoher & Taylor, 2007).

There are several ways to integrate interleaved practice into teaching (Blasiman, 2017; Taylor & Rhorer, 2009; Wissman, Rawson & Pyc, 2012).  Listed below are a few suggestions.

Interleave study skills 

While thoughtful learning strategies like flash cards were discussed in a previous Notebook article, teaching students how to learn through flashcards can be a powerful example of interleaved practice.  Encourage students to use flashcards to rehearse information.  However, stress the importance of shuffling the deck periodically in order to mix up information.  Also, do not exclude familiar items.  Instead, reshuffle the deck to integrate familiar items with newly learned concepts.

Interleave review of course information

When reviewing information in class, assign a minute paper or short quiz that incorporates new concepts with previously covered material.  Ask students to try to connect new information with information previously covered in class.

Interleave practice as a teaching technique

Consider integrating previously reviewed information with new information throughout the course.  Start class with a 5-10 review to revisit key concepts from previous class.  One simple technique is to use a PowerPoint slide with key concepts and have students orally walk through a review (Blasiman, 2017).  While this allows students an opportunity to review information and tie concepts together it also provides you with an opportunity to revisit items that students may find unclear.

If you would like to explore ways to incorporate interleaved practice into teaching, please consider a teaching consultation.  While there are many other ways to explore interleaved practice into teaching,

References

Blasiman, R. N., (2017). Distributed concept reviews improve exam performance. Teaching of Psychology, 44 (1), 46-50.

Carpenter, S. K., Pashler, H., & Cepeda, N. J. (2009). Using tests to enhance 8th grade students’retention of U.S. history facts. Applied Cognitive Psychology23(6), 760-771.

Carter, C., & Grahn, J. (2016). Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance. Frontiers In Psychology7(7), 1-10.

Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R., & Stershic, S. (2015). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning. Journal Of Educational Psychology107(3), 900-908.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science35(6), 481-498.

Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D. (2009). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology24(6),837-848.

Wissman, K., Rawson, K., & Pyc, M. (2012). How and when do students use flashcards?. Memory20(6),568-579.

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