Interleaving and how to use it.

Many of us have been working with retrieval practices in our specific subject areas and are familiar with encoding, storage, and retrieval, but when we encounter the word interleaving and have to explain it to someone, we usually just say, “mixing it up.” I would like to “mix it up” and give my spin on interleaving and suggest some models to help with your classroom.

In my interpretation, interleaving comes down to the variability of desirable difficulties (Bjork) to elicit specific adaptations with just enough challenge for the learner to crave more knowledge/skills associated with the specific subject matter presented.  The only hang up is that we need to develop the desirable difficulties over time by starting from a blocked model to solidify new skills (minimal variability), tie them in with somewhat learned skills (medium variability, and then fully integrate them into older skills (high variability).

I think the first thing we do, with regard to interleaving and its application is try to vary everything all at the same time. Once the students or ourselves seem scattered within the mix, then we abandon the interleaving concept, resorting back to our old ways of blocked instruction that has a more appealing level of comfort. The teacher has the curse (and blessing) of knowledge. The blessing is that the expert has already synthesized the information, but the curse is that we must extract and dissect it in a matter that will be digestible for the learner in a progressive fashion.  

So what does all this mean in the practical world and how can I be a better interleaver in my classroom?

This is my approach for encountering new material with students or even myself and how to manage it throughout the day, week, quarter, semester, year, and beyond.

  1. Start with the fundamentals.  Most any subject matter can be whittled down into 3-5 main areas of fundamentals.  I teach orchestra and my four areas are Posture/Body, Right Hand, Left Hand, and Musical Elements (putting it all together). I have spoken with our biology teacher and said that every quarter she has to come back to the basics of how a microscope works and how to use it.
  2. Identify sub-categories within each fundamental. This can get excessive, so brainstorm and then truly identify the absolute needs for the future skills and cognition. In my world, I broke down the Right Hand to include bow hand shape, bow strokes, and bow management.
  3. Rate the difficulty of each sub-category from hardest to easiest. Within each category you’ll have an idea of which bits of material will be more difficult to learn or conceptualize, so the introduction of material will have a direct focus. I will reference how to use this rating system below, but it is based on the classic baseball pitching study.
  4. Create material to produce/enhance skills and cognition based on sub-categories. Here is where classroom activities can get creative and exciting. Elementary teachers are pros here because, in my humble opinion, they are the ultimate Edu-tainers.  Since you have identified the sub-categories of fundamentals, now you can create several different activities that relate, but approach the material from a different angle each time. Interleaving has begun!!
  5. Schedule your fundamentals throughout the week. Let’s say you identified four main fundamentals in your subject area.  If you are on a traditional school schedule of 5 days of instruction per day, you can focus on one fundamental a day and leave the last day for a review just in case one or part of another day did not go as well. As you are going from day to day, help the student synthesize how the previous day relates to the current day and even forecast the next day’s fundamental.

The above system is a perfect world and takes some time to establish. If you are teaching novice students, you may need to only start with a 2 day rotation of skills/concept. Depending upon complexity of concept and age of student, you may need to start with a mini block approach of two days of (AA), then two days of (BB), last day may be combining (AB), and start the variation the following week (ABCBA) with the addition of another related, but new skill or concept.

The key to this rotation and variation is to always come back to the most difficult concept, until it becomes comfortable (not perfect), then move on to the next hardest concept as the new focus. Try to have as many ‘built in’ assessments as possible to gauge progress as accurately as possible.  Maybe a 3-5 question low/no-stakes quiz after? Here is an example of interleaving a concept:

Concept A has five variations labeled hardest to easiest (1-5)

Week 1 in a five day week = 1, 3, 1, 2, 1. Assess either formally or informal. Variation 1 becomes comfortable.

Week 2 = 2, 1, 2, 4, 1. Assess progress and determine next week. Variation 1 is still good, but variation 2 needs more focus.

Week 3 = 2, 3, 2, 4, 2. Assess and continue progress.  

The world doesn’t come at us in neat blocks or boxes of information.  As associative beings, we are able to group ideas and concepts that are similar with the hopes of adapting those concepts in the future to meet our needs for survival, whether that be out running a Sabertooth tiger or passing that dreaded exam.  Interleaving, in my opinion, is one of the ultimate means to a more flexible learner as it incorporates encoding, storage, forgetting, and retrieval in a more ‘real world’ application. Start small with one concept and experiment with yourself or your students.  Get out there and mix it up!

For more informationplease don’t hesitate to contact me.

David P. Schurger

Orchestra Director, Zionsville Community High School Music Director and Conductor, IU School of Medicine Orchestra

** Bjork defines a desirable difficulty as a learning task that requires a considerable but desirable amount of effort, thereby improving long-term performance.

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