The Power of Interleaving Curriculum Material

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Bowl of fruit salad


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How can teachers supercharge their students’ learning to develop and remember knowledge?

Teachers have an incredible opportunity to revolutionise their classroom by harnessing the power of interleaving practice; to discriminate effectively, generalise knowledge, and help students to excel academically …

What’s your favourite fruit?

When I describe the theory of interleaving practice to teachers, I like to use the analogy of a ‘fruit salad’.

One can add chopped strawberries, apples, pieces of bananas, blueberries and pieces of melon to the bowl, and then mix them together. However, I wouldn’t add baked beans to the bowl!

Baked beans are still a ‘food’, but there are different ‘category’ of food.

This is useful when thinking about curriculum design (intent) and implementation. Teach students all the concepts, rules and facts about strawberries, apples, bananas, blueberries and melon, but hold back on the baked beans until you introduce sausages, baked potatoes, eggs and bacon.

Now, obviously, you wouldn’t be teaching students the above (unless you’re teaching food technology), but use the above as examples of potential curriculum topics.

The power of interleaving practice

Interleaving practice entails presenting examples from different categories in a mixed sequence, departing from the conventional blocked practice where examples from the same category are grouped together.

Research consistently demonstrates that interleaved practice enhances category learning by fostering discrimination and generalisation. By incorporating this technique, teachers can empower students to achieve higher accuracy rates and apply their knowledge effectively to new situations – think metacognition!

The challenges for teachers

While the evidence supporting interleaving practice is compelling, we must acknowledge the existence of a discrepancy between subjective beliefs and objective learning outcomes.

Most of the research I have unpicked is often conducted in high schools and college scenarios, typically in maths or science classrooms. One must look very carefully at research conducted in specific contexts (for example, early years) to apply research recommendations and translate them into their setting.

Many learners (and perhaps parents) mistakenly perceive blocked practice (sometimes known as cramming or blocked practice) as more effective due to the frequency experienced when studying multiple examples of the same category consecutively.

Correcting these metacognitive misconceptions presents a challenge for education at large, but one that is essential to help students grasp the benefits of interleaving practice. I’m pleased to report that many schools I support on my travels are now introducing these study skills to their students ..

Practical strategies for teachers

So, what can teachers do practically in their classrooms to help?

  1. Select similar categories: Identify concepts or categories in curriculum plans that students find challenging or prone to confusion. Focus on interleaving examples within these categories or between confusing examples from different categories. This approach facilitates meaningful connections and enhances students’ ability to discriminate effectively.
  2. Optimise presentation format: When presenting examples, explicitly state the category name and highlight key features to make them salient to students. I’m becoming a massive fan of instructional design, particularly dual coding teacher training resources to help teachers process information. There should be no different to what teachers should do in the classroom; engage students’ senses and help them develop a deep understanding of the concepts. Tell stories and provide real-life examples.
  3. Timing of interleaving: Introduce interleaving during classroom instruction when introducing new concepts. Incorporate interleaving practice into practice assignments and homework to reinforce learning. To enhance long-term retention, leverage spaced practice by interleaving examples across multiple sessions. By strategically incorporating interleaving into lesson plans, teachers create a foundation for lasting knowledge acquisition.
  4. Plan and sequence examples: Traditional teaching materials often follow a linear structure with limited interleaved examples. Revising curriculum intentions to select and rearrange the sequencing of materials helps to incorporate interleaving practice – think Spiderweb curriculum. Consider adopting hybrid schedules that blend online, homework, assessments and factor in various times of the day, week and year.

Resources to help implement

In line with the four recommendations above, here are some resources I recommend you try:

  1. This resource offers teachers a methodology for reshaping curriculum planning.
  2. This resource can be used to develop knowledge of dual coding and instructional design.
  3. This resource considers the timing of interleaving to develop transfer of learning.
  4. This resource helps teachers with several planning scenarios to help refine sequencing processes.

Correcting misconceptions

Teachers must utilise strategies that connect performance to specific classroom conditions to overcome students’ resistance (or perception) to interleaving practice. Begin with a blocked practice approach, perhaps on one topic that students are familiar with throughout the lesson, and gradually incorporate increased interleaving (mixed topics within one lesson).

By conducting live demonstrations showcasing the benefits of interleaving, using diverse examples from different categories, and explaining the advantages, teachers can help establish accurate knowledge amongst students.

The message? Think ‘fruit salads’ when designing and implementing curriculum plans.

By embracing evidence-based interleaving practice, teachers can significantly enhance students’ category learning, minimising confusion to empower students’ learning experiences and cultivate long-term retention of knowledge.

Open References:

  1. Inspired by Interleaved Presentation Benefits Science Category Learning (Eglington and Kang, 2017)
  2. Why Interleaving Enhances Inductive Learning (Birnbaum, M. S. et al., 2013)
  3. Using Spacing to Enhance Diverse Forms of Learning (Carpenter, S. K. et al., 2012)

Other paywall references:

  1. Interleaving Helps Students Distinguish Among Similar Concepts (Rohrer, D., 2012)
  2. Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning (Kang, S. H., 2016)
  3. When Is Practice Testing Most Effective for Student Learning? (Rawson, K. A., Dunlosky, J., 2012)
  4. The Effects of Interleaved Practice (Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D., 2010)
  5. Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques (Dunlosky, J., Willingham, D. T., et al. 2013)

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