Having better learning or practice results just by switching up the order of topics? Without any additional learning time required? Sounds like magic to me – too good to be true!
Nevertheless, there have been many psychological findings which promote a learning technique called Interleaved Practice.
If you are like me then you probably fought your way through school by learning one topic at a time until you felt like you had a very solid understanding. Only then you’d move on to the next block of topics. We call this kind of learning Blocked Practice.
Maybe you can already see why this traditional approach is (in most cases) deemed to be ineffective. Just think about how well you can put your topics into relation with each other for example. But more on that later.
Interleaved Practice on the other hand focusses on:
- Studying a variety of topics in smaller chunks
- Varying the order in which the topics are studied
This leads to a range of benefits like stronger memory retention and improved abilities to solve problems. I’ll also go more into that later on!
But first, let’s find out how you can implement Interleaved Practice into your learning schedule!
How to do the magic
Let’s say you have to learn the three topics A, B and C. These might be the electric field, the magnetic field and how particles move in these fields.
Your traditional blocked practice approach would involve learning a each topic for three hours respectively and maybe even on different days. While doing so you’re only focusing on exercises from the topic you’re working on.
After enough time you probably feel like you’re acing every single one of them. Now you’re prepared for your exam, right?
Interleaved practice applied to this example on the other hand would work as follows. As we already established earlier you want to:
1. Study a variety of topics in smaller chunks
In general you want to split up your available study time over many topics of a respective subject instead of just one or two. In this case you want to study topic A, B and C on the same day but only one hour respectively.
2. Mix up the order of topics in each consecutive study session
This means you should start with a different topic each day. Ideally, you would randomize the practice exercises and material you are exposed to. However, you also want equal exposure to all topics. That’s why there should at least be some planning involved.
Consequently, combining these points, your schedule could look something like this opposed to the blocked practice variation:
Now let’s get into how interleaved practice even would create positive results:
Why the magic works
Problem Identification Skills:
Remember the feeling I described that you usually have after a blocked practice session? It’s an enormous illusion, a trick your mind plays on you and that you should never fall for! Let me tell you why:
While it might be very well true that you perfected your knowledge of the respective techniques that are necessary to solve a problem, you completely ignored the necessity of honing your problem identification skills!
As you worked on the same section the whole time you and your brain didn’t even have to spare a thought on what kind of problem you’re even tackling.
If you compare this to practicing table tennis, you of course could practice blocking top spin serves dozens of times right after each other. What would happen though is that your focus is diverted from your opponent’s movements. This is not at all how table tennis works though as in a real situation your opponents will try to trick you with different serves each time.
In math and any other subject it’s similar. You first need to identify the problem you want to solve. This is like locating the correct drawer in closet in which your tools are stored. Once you found it you can take out your tools. These could be derivatives or the binomial formula to solve the problem.
Therefore, your feeling after blocked practice is misleading. Your teacher certainly won’t tell you which tools you have to use in his exam. And outside of a school everything is a big randomized mess.
Improved Memory Retention:
Ever studied so long that your brain felt like goo and couldn’t hold any additional information anymore? At least that has often the case for me with blocked practice.
That’s where the smaller chunks come into play. If you spend three hours on a single topic your concentration drops significantly and new neural connections just can’t form in that quantity.
Working on different topics more frequently however provides a different kind effort you actually want to aim for. As you have to switch between topics you have to constantly change thinking patterns. The harder your brain has to work however, the deeper information gets embedded. Therefore, mixing topics up in each study session additionally adds to this difficulty.
All in all, that might initially feel more difficult. A study with people learning the styles of different painters has even shown that people felt better prepared for a follow-up test when they studied in blocks. The test results however showed that interleaved practice lead to a far better outcome.
Why would people do so much better against their intuition? The answer is remarkably easy – if you work on different areas simultaneously you are constantly searching for similarities and differences between them. The strain on your brain and all these additional associations in turn make it less easier to remember the topics and to discern them!
In our example you can remarkably benefit from being able to discern the characteristics of magnetic and an electric field and even combine your knowledge to, let’s say, understand the function of a particle filter which would be part of the third section.
A last very important point is the passive application of the (in my opinion) most effective learning strategy out there – Spaced Repetition! There is a psychological concept called the forgetting curve. Its basic message is that the longer you don’t recall an information the less you will remember of it. If your actively recall that information though, you reset the forgetting curve again and it now declines slower. Be sure to check out my respective article on Spaced Repetition for more information after you read this article!
With blocked practice you basically only have one long look at a certain topic. In our example, interleaving the topics on the other hand allows you to review each topic on three different occasions without any additional time investments. This resets your forgetting curve to the original level, in turn keeping your long-term memory retention on a high level!
Consequently, interleaved practice combines a lot of benefits even of other learning techniques and probably is more fun than rigid learning schedules as you constantly vary things!
What to watch out for
As we established, interleaving different topics is really beneficial! Then, does that mean that we should combine our French grammar lessons with physics problems? Hell no!
In this case your brain already is able to discern them without any effort. Therefore, you will only be wasting a lot of valuable time trying to switch back and forth between physics and French mode.
Consequently, what you want to aim for are similar topics from the same subject/topic group which allow you to build a joint understanding of all of them like in our example from above!
Even though it seems like it, I don’t want to entirely ruin the concept of blocked practice for you. In some special cases it might actually be the right thing to go for!
Especially if you want to familiarize yourself with a topic it is better to do that in a bigger block. It doesn’t make much sense to combine compare your knowledge from different topics if you don’t have any knowledge about them in the first hand!
However, don’t forget about the 80/20 rule: 80% of an outcome can often already be achieved with 20% of the effort! In this case 80% are more than enough to apply interleaved practice already. So start out with only one blocked session per topic at maximum and other than tht generally avoid them if possible!
A last advice I want to give you is to not study your topics in the order that you initially learned them in school/university or in your textbook!
The concepts of older chapters have very likely already familiarized themselves with you. Consequently, you’d need to input 80% to gain those final 20% of knowledge. This is highly time ineffective! Rather aim for the newer topics which you haven’t quite grasped yet. You have so much more to gain from them!
That’s it then already, enjoy learning!
- Blocked practice is highly ineffective for learning
- Interleaving topics in different order combines many benefits like long term-memory retention and improved problem-solving skills
- Interleaved practice automatically also incorporates other learning techniques
- Be sure to apply interleaved practice to similar topic groups and only work with blocked practice to familiarize yourself with a concept
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