How To Do Interleaved Learning

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

Credit: inmorino

I came across this article, “5 Research-Backed Studying Techniques,” and found interleaving to be interesting.

It turns out to be an amazing learning strategy that can expedite your learning gains. 

Basketball Analogy

Think of playing basketball. An athlete wouldn’t dribble a ball on one spot for 2 hours. He’ll do all kinds of drills including shooting, passing, and receiving. 

After all, a basketball player requires him to mix all those sub skills when playing on the court. 

How To Do Interleaving?

Let’s first talk about the enemy of interleaving. Have you heard of block learning? It’s the traditional way we’ve been taught at school. 

Let’s say you’re learning how to get the area of shapes. The teacher will first teach you how to get the area of a triangle. Then, she’ll give you 15-20 exercises. Then, she’ll teach you how to get the area of a square; then, 15-20 exercises. And so on. 

So how do you do interleaving practice?? By mixing and learning multiple subskills and topics in a session.

Let’s go back to our example: start by learning to get the areas of 3-4 shapes. Then, solve 15-20 mixed problems involving those shapes. 

If you’re learning to play the piano, don’t do the same scale over and over again. Learn multiple scales and mix them up. If you’re learning tennis, practice the different kinds of strokes in the same session. You get the point. 

It sounds like an awful way to learn, but let me show why the old school blocking way is much worse. 

What’s So Terrible About Block Learning?  

In short, it gives you the illusion that you have gained competence. This is a fast way to get eaten alive in the real world. Let me explain. 

When you get a set of triangle problems to solve as homework, you automatically know what you’re up against. So, you queue up in your head your “triangle” tools to crush your homework. 

Here’s the problem. Real world problems won’t come to you and say, “Hey, I’m a triangle problem.”  So, you need a different set of skills to recognize what type of obstacles you’re facing. The last thing you want is to leave the nest thinking you’re a badass when the vultures out there are more ferocious. Interleaving gives you sharper talons. 

What to expect when doing interleaving learning?

First, it’s not going to feel easy. If you’re not used to this kind of learning, your frustration will be more severe than block learning. But, that’s a good thing. Have you ever struggled with a problem but ended up learning more about it than anyone else?  It’s the toiling and struggling that made you get a deep understanding of it. 

Second, you’ll lag behind at first. After all, you’re learning multiple things at the same time. This is the part where you have to buckle down. Don’t worry, I’ll show you the proof in the next section that you’re going to come up on top. 

Third, the things you’ll learn will stick for a while. Who doesn’t want that? 

Proof that Interleaving Works 

There was a study where middle schoolers were split into two groups; an interleaving group and a blocking group. All of them had to learn algebra. 

All the students had to take an exam after one day of learning. Not surprisingly, the interleaving group did 25% better than the blocking group. 

30 days later, they had to take another test. This time, the interleaving group outperformed the blocking group by a whopping 76%. 

There are also studies involving basketball, badminton, and other sports, where interleaving is is show to be way better than blocking. 

Why Is Interleaving Effective Anyway? 

I briefly mentioned before, but this review article explains that interleaving teaches your brain to distinguish between different types of problems. With blocking, once you learn a concept, your learning stagnates. 

Your brain stays on its toes with interleaving. It continuously searches for “hacks” on its memory bank; it’s improving its ability to tell apart different sets of problems. It experiments on combining multiple solutions. And more. 

It also helps you develop the skill to find connections between concepts. This, in my opinion, is the holy grail of problem solving because it involves transfer. It’s the ability to apply a solution from one discipline to another. 

How Does Interleaving Help With Exams?

Here’s one of my beef with school: they use the blocking system to teach you, right? But why the heck would they give you exams that are interleaved in nature? It’s like setting you up to fail.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall taking an exam where the concepts are sectioned.  

Interleaving study sessions are like simulations for the tests. If you get used to filtering problems, discriminating between concepts, and getting tricked during practice, then taking an exam is going to be just another session. I’d take this option any day compared to getting kicked in the teeth during exams. 

When Can Interleaving Be Ineffective

Interleaving won’t be effective if you learn subskills or topics that are vastly different from each other. For example, it doesn’t make sense to do a calculus homework and an English paper at the same time. Nor does learning chess and playing the guitar in one session. 

Closing Thoughts 

This is a strategy that makes learning sticks. I’ve used it in learning programming, crossfit, writing, digital marketing, and more. I hope this valuable strategy will supercharge your learning and lead you to lots of success. 

-Klint 


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