How to use Interleaving to Foster Deeper Learning

Overlapping exercises – If you are learning two or more related concepts or skills, it can be helpful to alternate between them rather than focusing on one concept or skill at a time.

With interleaving, you switch back and forth between solving two (usually related) problem types, so you never solve a small number of problems of the same type in a row before switching to another problem type.

A tennis player might practice the forehand first and then the backhand—it makes sense to master the skills in isolation, and sorting them from easy to hard is a proven strategy. Ultimately, however, the forehand is alternated with the backhand and volley, which makes the player more adaptable and flexible.

When we allow students to store information more deeply and challenge them to identify patterns and build connections. It’s a practice that’s getting attention from educators, writes teacher Larry Ferlazzo, who recently asked several educators to write about interleaving for his blog, Classroom Q&A at Education Week.

“Many of us have been told that persistent, focused practice is the path to mastery, and we believe in it,” Meg Riordan, chief learning officer at The Possible Project, an after-school program, wrote on a blog. “However, research shows that harvesting during nesting promotes the long-term development and maintenance of skills, as well as more seamless transfer to other environments.”

In interleaving, students learn by processing a mixture of related concepts, forcing the brain to try to remember previous learning and determine what strategies or skills to use to solve them. Education consultant Margaret Searle notes that the challenging work helps “consolidate long-term memory, facilitate problem-solving, and improve mastery.” However, Searle cautions that it is not a substitute for traditional block practice. The mass practice remains an important part of initial learning, but interleaving can be especially valuable when used at strategic intervals to consolidate deeper learning.

Here are some strategies teachers should consider when using staggering in the classroom:

Assign fewer practice questions when Interleaving

Because batch practice often involves learning sequentially—for example, adding first, followed by subtraction, multiplication, and division—students are often able to rely on muscle memory and memory retention to solve a large number of problems at once.

For example, a student studying multiplication can complete a 30-question multiplication worksheet relatively quickly. But learning tasks become more intellectual and time-consuming when teachers confuse different combinations of concepts, requiring children to slow down and review large amounts of information in their minds to make connections in their minds before finding solutions to problems and appropriate strategies.

Riordan says that for nested exercises to be sufficiently challenging but not overwhelming for students, it’s important to choose less nested practice problems that students need to solve at the same time, allowing them to work intensely rather than quickly. “Staggering does not mean abandoning fundamental principles of never adopting blocked practices,” she clarified. “Instead, it means avoiding the kind of mass movement that leads to mindless repetition.”

Stagger via Station Rotations

The site rotation model can provide an engaging framework for exploring interleaving, allowing students to rapidly rotate various related concepts in small groups—a framework that mixes teacher-led instruction, online learning, and collaborative activities.

Try “introducing a few related concepts at an introductory level, and then having learners practice those different concepts,” Riordan recommends. For example, if students are working on volume problems related to cones, pyramids, cubes, and spheres set up a station rotation so they can practice solving a rich combination of different problems. Riordan adds that it’s a creative way for children to recall prior knowledge and apply it in unexpected ways, ultimately “enhancing learning and improving long-term ability.”

Planning a Comprehensive Project

In volleyball, players don’t just face a steady stream of spikes; they face spikes, set-pieces, blocks, passes, serves, and discards, Riordan wrote. Likewise, in an engaging project, students often practice a variety of skills, including design thinking, prototyping, and problem-solving.

By staggering, “subjects, subjects, subjects, and even proficiency can all be combined to create an awesome final project,” writes Jen Schwanke, a former elementary and middle school teacher and administrator. “That’s why I love project-based learning. That’s why I love units that offer students multiple, different, dynamic possibilities. That’s why I love being selective and allowing students to showcase their learning in unique ways .”

When planning a unit, try to include activities that integrate a variety of old and new concepts to help students refresh their memory, understand material related to related ideas, and extend their learning. “Students intricately experience the world. Therefore, they learn best in a similar way,” Riordan wrote.

Rishi Sriram, an associate professor in Baylor University’s School of Education, wrote: “At the end of a unit, don’t allow students to be completely disconnected from their previous learning each day to review previous concepts and take some questions from previous lessons in the current test, weave knowledge and contact networks. When teachers provide students with challenging assignments such as blended exercises, it encourages students to fight productively for better learning. “Students make more mistakes, but those mistakes are productive because they build better paths in their brains.”

About the article

With interleaving, you switch back and forth between solving two (usually related) problem types, so you never solve a small number of problems of the same type in a row before switching to another problem type.

In interleaving, students learn by processing a mixture of related concepts, forcing the brain to try to remember previous learning and determine what strategies or skills to use to solve them. In this article, we discussed how to use interleaving to foster deeper learning in the students of your classroom. 

Bill westermen

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