Supercharge Student Memory Retrieval with Interleaving

One of the books that has made a large impact on my teaching is Small Teaching by James M Lang. This book is not the first time I heard of interleaving, but I must have been in the right mental space to receive it when I read the book. Interleaving is a way of studying material where older material is interwoven with new material. You can think of it as an alternative to blocked practice, where first a student studies one subject, stops studying that and moves on to the next. There is a great Scientific American Article that lists some of the research behind it and some basic definitions.

I bookend my classes with some low/no stakes quizzes. They are usually 5 or 6 questions, and using tools like Kahoot and Quizlet Live, they can be fun too. I follow a similar pattern at the beginning and end of class. I ask four questions from the days subject matter and I add an additional question or two from previous classes. The additional questions in the beginning of class, do not necessarily match the ones at the end of class.

When giving these quizzes, I ask students to reflect on questions they didn’t know or didn’t know right away and use that to help them study. This priming can lead them to understanding the value of the quiz is not giving the right answers, but rather learning about what they know and what they don’t know.

One of the reasons that scholars believe interleaving practice is effective has to do with retrieval and forgetting. This article has a great visualization for the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. In Ebbinghaus’ research he found that each day that after you learn something, you likelihood of remembering it drops. What he is also found is that if he could interrupt the forgetting, the rate at which learners forgot declined.

Maybe it is not such a surprise that when something is studied multiple times we remember it longer. But in study after study what is show is that the spacing between the learning is a significant indicator of whether the information will be retrievable in the future.

I suggest you talk to other faculty in your department about interleaving and spaced practice. You might find out some new tips, or you might be the one bringing successful tips to your colleagues.

Further Reading:

Intro to Interleaving

Forgetting Curve

Small Teaching

Research papers on Spaced Practice:

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