Time for walls to tumble?
In the last entry, I broached the idea of ‘interleaving’ – mixing things up when you’re learning rather than studying in repetitive blocks and doing the same thing over and over again. Belief in the efficacy of the latter study technique has held sway for decades or even centuries: repeat the same thing again and again and again, the conventional wisdom goes, and it will somehow get burned into your neural circuits and become automatic.
And intuitively, it seems right. Indeed, we’ve all had the experience of doing something like that, whether practising sleight of hand for a card trick, going over and over that list of capital cities you needed to learn for your geography test, or (as I was forced to do for my ‘O’-Level English Lit studies) learning Shakespeare soliloquys off by heart: Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my ooh, look, chocolate biscuits! It didn’t take much to distract me from learning Shakespeare soliloquys.
But the evidence is mounting that the key in those learning experiences was not the repetition, but the borders between the repetition and switching to something else (preferably chocolate biscuits) and then coming back to the focus again, and then remembering the geography test is tomorrow (!!!) and switching again to capitals … One way or another, however blocked or massed our intentional practice may be, everything (if we’re lucky or distracted enough) is interleaved in the end.
Some things shouldn’t be left to chance
Haphazard or serendipitous interleaving, though, is perhaps not the best way to go. The same way that we have – for centuries – earnestly made blocked learning the standard pattern, so also can we boldly put new patterns into place. Sticking to them is the difficult thing, as the inner homunculus (thank you Stephen J. Gould) which drives our learning instincts is shouting ‘That’s not right – do it over and over again! That’s how you get good…!’ Time to gag ‘Brainy’ (who according to the neurological text book ‘The Numbskulls’ (The Beezer, 1962-93; The Beano 1993-present) is running our brain) and step, Indiana Jones-like, onto the invisible bridge to better learning. Like Indy, let’s scatter some sand onto the bridge so we can see where it might get us. And while we’re at it, let’s stop all this interleaving of pop and academic culture references!
Common laments of the teacher and learner (and the implications of the interleaved approach in these situations)
Teacher: They haven’t got [the present perfect/vectors/patterns of urban development] yet and we’ve done it over and over again!
Implication: Who cares? In fact, just stop it! Jump to something else, make a fresh start, give everyone a break and remember that coming back to it later will be better for their learning than hammering away, over and wearily over.
Learner: I’ll never get [conditionals/valency/efficiency and equity] – it’s doing my head in!
Implication: Yes, you will. But doing it again and again is not helping. Mix in other things (or ask your teacher to) and circle back to it later. It’s amazing the advances your brain can make for you in the background while you’re focused on something else.
Teacher: I have to do a whole term on [José Saramago/preparation for thesis writing/calculating areas and volumes]?!? We’ll all go up the wall!
Implication: Rather than go up the wall, go round the houses. Spin in a little Saramago (fun, frothy stuff!) and then jump across to Eça de Queiroz or Fernando Pessoa. Who cares if it’s not in this unit? Saramago doesn’t exist in isolation (though some might wish he did) and will be better grasped if spliced in with other authors, works, styles. The same goes for other subjects. Mix and match. Live a little.
Learner: Oh man, I have to spend another two days revising for my maths exam… Then I can start on physics. But I have to stick to the schedule!
Implication: At last – the excuse not to doggedly stick to a blocked and soul-destroying revision schedule where you cram everything you’ll need into a restricted timeframe. Purposefully mix up your revision schedule and reap the benefits of (a) the relief of variety and (b) the boost of learning that interleaving gives you.
What can we infer?
There is no need to hammer away at something until you (and the students) are sick of it – learning will be better (and more enjoyable) if you switch to something else and come back later. Frustration and boredom are reduced and you (and your students) will feel refreshed for having taken a break and switched it up!
We should avoid repetitive practice of the same structure/formula/theory – Complete these sentences with the present continuous / Calculate the surface area of these spheres / Calculate the size of these plant cells. NOT! Mix up tenses, formulae, different aspects of cell structure and force your students (or yourself as a self-studier) to think more independently. Learners will be better able to make independent choices in the future if it is done in a safe, supportive environment first.
No need to follow the course book (or your self-study programme) page by page/stage by stage. Just because there blocked sections on grammatical areas/units of measure/Stalin’s dictatorship doesn’t mean you have to do it in that order. Feel free to jump ahead, circle back, step outside. You (or your students) learn better how things relate if they are regularly seen alongside each other rather than being kept inside their safe and sterile enclosures.
Build in pop quizzes. No one likes unannounced tests, but if you make them into a game – noughts and crosses, connect 4, a Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style format, you can gaily interleave to your heart’s content, knowing you’ll carry the students along with you. Fun is a great persuader. (You can do this for yourself with a set of shufflable topic cards to vary your self-study or revision. Give yourself a square of chocolate for each correct answer. And now I need chocolate. Excuse me…)
Anger management. As mentioned in the last entry, interleaving is one of the trickiest approaches to persuade your students/yourself is good for you. The lifetime of reliance on blocked learning is so ingrained that we can feel cheated if it’s not done to death, presented, practised, tested, revised and sledgehammered home in time-honoured fashion. It can seem that just when you’re getting good at something, it’s pulled out from under your feet and you’re plunged into something else which can potentially seem disparate and unconnected. How to alleviate this tension and keep your students’ faith in the course set for them (or your own in your variegated study scheme)?
Transparency, openness … and skulduggery
- Option A
Explain to your students the reasoning behind the interleaved programme they are following, assuring them that their learning will benefit and explaining where the theory comes from.
Produce for them an overview that shows how each area will be circled back to later, picked up again, refreshed and related to other areas they’ve studied.
Provide them with a lesson menu so they know that, at certain key points in the lesson, they’ll be switching focus and putting their brains into a different gear or thinking mode.
They’re smart enough to grasp the benefits of opportunities for enhanced learning and their faith in you as a principled teacher will carry them through, right? Right…?…?
- Option B
Don’t tell ’em squat.
Rely on the fact that you can plan and execute engaging lessons and create convincing bridges between the different interleaved sections of the lesson or the interleaved lessons which mix together various themes and avoid becoming blocked. They won’t even notice.
Praise their ability to recall things they haven’t recycled for a while and point out what a valuable skill it is and how it will serve them well in the future.
Scheme, dissemble, flatter. It’s good for them. Ends justify means.
Really, it can translate into percentage points on test scores now, and confidence in their ability to calmly deal with life or academia’s curve balls later. I like to think of it as a ‘swindle-win-win’ situation.
(But really, how often have you felt the need to justify to the class your choice of an inductive approach to your lesson, or a test-teach-test pattern, or any other scheme? It’s no more underhand than any of the myriad other choices we build into lesson planning on a daily basis which we know (or hope) will improve our students’ learning outcomes.)
Interleave Options A & B. Interleaving’s good. I hope I’ve got that much across.
Ready for a challenge?
Go on – mix it up. Here are some things you can do to push the boundaries a little (or a lot – up to you). If you need to keep one foot on firm land, try something out with one class only and see how it feels and how they respond.
- Map out a term’s interleaving for one class. It doesn’t take as long as you might think to rough out how you can circle back and forth in the material contained in a section of the course book or syllabus. You may, however, need to work on new practice activities as the ones in the book will almost certainly all be blocked practice of one area.
- Choose three or four topics and build consecutive lessons around each. Let the students know you’ll be circling round and picking up on each one and then asking them how they relate to each other. Let them do the thinking – you’ve got new practice exercises to work on!
- Experiment with interleaved practice exercises – even if they’ve just come to grips with one particular concept, don’t jackhammer away at it in practice but make exercises that mix up the new concept with other familiar ones right from the outset.
- Build in a pop quiz in the form of a game or a team competition every week or two. Train your students to get used to dealing with the unexpected or unannounced and interleaved. It will serve them well and they’ll enjoy it.
Let me know how it goes! I’d be fascinated to hear more feedback from the chalkface.
Next post (in a few days – it’s a brief interlude rather than classroom-based theory and practice) will make a quick sidestep to finish off interleaving – and sidesteps should be part of good interleaving. Why are both teachers and students so resistant to interleaving? I have a theory I’ll share with you. I’ll also share my own experience of interleaved study and make an embarrassing confession. Or I might bottle out and do something else entirely. I’ll pretend it’s interleaving…