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Better Learning Through Interleaving

Interleaving is a largely unheard of technique – outside of neuroscience – which will catapult your learning and training outcomes. The technique has been studied since the late 1990’s but not outside of academia. Still, learning and incorporating the technique will make your training offerings more effective and your learners more productive.

What is it?

Interleaving is a way of learning and studying. Most learning is done in “blocks” – a period of time in which one subject is learned or practiced. Think high school where each class is roughly an hour and focuses on only one topic (math, history, english, etc.). The typical training catalog is arranged this way as well. Your organization might offer Negotiation Skills for 4 hours or Beginner Excel for two-days. The offering is focused on one specific skill for an intense period of time.

Interleaving, on the other hand, mixes several inter-related skills or topics together. So, rather than learning negotiation skills as a stand-alone topic, those skills would be interleaved with other related topics such as competitive intelligence, writing proposals or understanding profit-margins. One of the keys of interleaving is that the learner is able to see both how concepts are related as well as how they differ. This adds to the learner’s ability to conceptualize and think critically, rather than simply rely on rote or working memory.

How Does it Benefit?

Interleaving is hard work. When utilizing interleaving, the brain must constantly assess new information and form a “strategy” for dealing with it. For example: What do I know about my competitor’s offering (competitive intelligence) and how am I able to match or overcome that (negotiation skills).

While the technique is still being studied, it is suspected that it works well in preparing adult learners in the workplace because “work” never comes in a linear, logical or block form. You might change tasks and topics three times in an hour; those tasks may be related or not –the worker needs to be able to discriminate and make correct choices based on how the situation is presented. Interleaving helps to train the brain to continually focus on searching for different responses, decisions, or actions.

While the learning process is more gradual and difficult at first (because there are many different and varied exposures to the content), the increased effort results in longer-lasting outcomes. What’s interesting is that in the immediate-term, it appears that blocking works better. If people study one topic consistently (as one might study for a final exam), they generally do better – in the short term – on a test than those who learned through interleaving.

Again, the only studies that have been done have taken place in academia, but here is an example of the long-term beneficial outcomes of interleaving. In a three-month study (2014) 7th grade mathematics students learned slope and graph problems were either taught via a blocking strategy or an interleaving strategy. When a test on the topic was conducted immediately following the training, the blocking learners had higher scores. However, one day later, the interleaving students had 25% better scores than the blocking learners and one month later the interleaving students had 76% better scores! Because interleaving doesn’t allow the learner to hold anything in working memory, but instead requires him to constantly retrieve the appropriate approach or response, there is more ability to arrive at a well-reasoned answer and a better test of truly having learned.

How Can You Use Interleaving?

As mentioned earlier, although concentrating on one topic at a time to learn it (blocking) seems effective, it really isn’t; long term understanding and retention suffers. Therefore one must question whether there was actual learning or simply memorization. If you goal is to help your trainees learn, you’ll want to use an interleaving process.

Warning: Most companies won’t want to do this because it is a longer and more difficult learning process and the rewards are seen later as well.

Make Links

The design and development of your curriculum(s) doesn’t need to change at all – simply the process. First, look for links between topics and ideas and then have your learners switch between the topics and ideas during the learning process. For instance, our Teaching Thinking Curriculum does this by linking topics such as Risk, Finance, and Decision Making; while each of those is a distinct topic, there are many areas of overlap. In fact, one doesn’t really make a business decision without considering the risk and the cost or cost/benefit, correct? So why would you teach those topics independent of one another?

Use with Other Learning Strategies

Interleaving isn’t the “miracle” approach to enhanced learning. Terrific outcomes are also achieved through spaced learning, repeated retrieval, practice testing and more. Especially when it comes to critical thinking tasks, judgement requires multiple exposures to problems and situations. Be sure to integrate different types of learning processes in order to maximize the benefit of interleaving.

Integrate Concepts with Real Work

Today’s jobs require people to work on complex tasks with often esoteric outcomes. It’s hard to apply new learning to one’s work when the two occur in separate spheres and the real-world application isn’t immediate. Try to integrate topics to be learned with the work the learner is doing right now. For example, for a course in reading financial reports (cash flow, profit/loss, etc.), rather than simply teach the concepts with generic examples of the formats, the learners were tasked with bringing the annual report from two of their clients (learners were salespeople). As each type of financial report was taught, the learners looked to real-world examples (that meant something to them) of how to read and interpret those reports.

Ask the Learners to Process

Too often we conclude a training class by reviewing what was covered in the class. Rather than telling the learners what just happened, have them process the concepts themselves. This is easiest to do through a writing activity. You might ask the learners to pause periodically, note what they have learned, link it to something they learned earlier, and align it with their work responsibilities. For instance: I will use my understanding of profit margins and financial risk to thoughtfully reply to a customer’s request for a discount or to confidently walk away from the deal. It’s not about the sale, it’s about the bottom line. The process of writing helps the learner to really think through the concepts just taught and it allows them to go back over their learning in the future to remind themselves of the links they made within the curriculum and between the curriculum and work responsibilities.

Interleaving enables your training to be more effective and your learners to be more accomplished and productive.