Learning

Interleaved Practice: Learn Better by Mixing it Up

Interleaved Practice

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We usually have a tendency to finish one section while learning a topic and progressively moving on to the other ones. For example, if you are learning about shapes in geometry, you would finish learning about the volume and area of a sphere and then moving to other shapes like a cylinder, cube, etc. Contrary to how we tend to learn, Interleaved Practice suggests learning about the volumes and areas of all shapes together. This counterintuitive practice leads to better learning. Let’s deep dive into Interleaved Practice to see how you can use it to learn pretty much anything.

Interleaved Practice: Quick Look

What is Interleaved Practice?

As mentioned above, instead of learning about the geometrical shapes individually, one after the other, you learn better by interleaving the shapes you learn about.

Interleaved Practice is the learning technique where you learn topics by mixing them up. Simply put, instead of learning in order like A-A-A-A-B-B-B-B, you would learn like A-B-A-B-B-A-B-A.

Our tendency to learn by focusing on a single topic at a time is referred to as Massed Practice. In the short term, learning by interleaving seems tough, slower, and effortful. At this point, it is tough to see the benefits of interleaving over Massed Practice. In the long term, however, interleaving results in longer retention and better mastery.

Interleaved Practice produces better outcomes when combined with Spacing and Retrieval Practice. Combining learning techniques helps counter the effects of forgetting and also makes it easy to retrieve what you learned from memory.

Interleaving vs Spacing

Interleaving is the practice of switching between topics during your study session. Spacing involves distributing study and recall sessions over a time period to avoid forgetting what you learned.

Spacing Effect

To break it down further, you could schedule your study sessions as shown in the calendar above. After studying the topic the first time, your review sessions would be spaced out with more time between each review session. In each of the study sessions above, you could interleave what you learn by switching topics.

How to Use Interleaving?

Let’s look at one of the study sessions from the ones shown in the calendar above. You could apply Interleaving to almost any topic of study: math, programming, Machine Learning algorithms, guitar/piano scales and chords, techniques in basketball, etc. To illustrate the interleaving process better, let’s consider learning about geometrical shapes.

Massed Practice vs Interleaved Practice

Your textbook or study material would mostly be in order. It would first have problems calculating the volume and area of a cube, then a cylinder, followed by a hexagonal prism, then a triangular prism, and finally a pentagonal prism. Instead of following the path laid out by your book, you would constantly jump across pages to different shapes.

You would solve a couple of problems to calculate the volume and area of a cube, jumping to a cylinder, back to a cube, then to a prism, etc. You could go over each of these shapes as many times as you want while keeping in mind to constantly mix it up so as to learn about calculating the volume and area of every shape.

Combining Interleaving, Spacing, and Retrieval

Interleaved Practice is much more effective if combined with Spacing and Retrieval Practice. Now that you know how to use interleaving during a study session, it is also important to not forget what you have learned. The Forgetting curve below shows our exponential nature of forgetting something after learning it once.

Forgetting Curve

By spacing out sessions over a period of time and actively working on retrieving information from your memory, you can interrupt the tendency to forget and remember what you learned. Combining Spacing and Retrieval would alter the Forgetting Curve as shown below.

Forgetting Curve with Repetitions

Using Elaboration to connect new information to what you know and create mental cues can make retrieval even more effective. Combining interleaving, spacing, retrieval with elaboration you can remember what you learned better, master what you learned, and learn for the long term.

Research on Interleaved Practice

The authors of the book Make it Stick mention a study demonstrating the benefits of Interleaved Practice. It involved teaching two groups of college students how to find the volume of a wedge, spheroid, cone, and half cone.

The first group solved practice problems organized by problem type: practice four problems for calculating the volume of a wedge, then four problems on a spheroid, etc. The second group of students worked with the same practice problems but the problems were interleaved. The second group did not follow the same straightforward sequence as the first group.

Initially, the outcome seemed to be flipped. While practicing, the students who had solved the problems in a straightforward sequence (massed practice) averaged a score of 89%. The students who learned using interleaving scored only 60% on average.

However, when the students were tested a week later, the students who learned using massed practice averaged a score of only 20% compared to 63% by the students who used interleaving.

Learning using Interleaved Practice is slower and you would not see the positive results you expect right away. But given some time and practice, you will retain what you learned better and exhibit better mastery.

Things to Keep in Mind

Let’s go over a few things you need to be aware of to successfully learn using Interleaved Practice

Be Patient

Interleaving helps you learn better but this benefit has a price attached. Learning using interleaving can seem slow and effortful at first. It is tough to see the benefits of interleaving when you start studying something. It is not a technique that gives you rapid results. For this reason, it is important to be patient when starting out with Interleaved Practice.

Because interleaving is slower it is not popular but it is evident from the research above that the benefits of interleaving are far better than massed practice in the long term.

Avoid Cramming

Because learning using Interleaving is slower and requires more effort, you need to have a plan throughout the semester and well before your exams to see the benefits of interleaving.

Having a plan also involves spacing out study and review sessions so as to avoid forgetting what you learned. Studying at the last moment rarely helps you retain the information to retrieve from your memory when needed. You inevitably tend to forget what you crammed right after the exam which is counterproductive.

Calendar-Notes

In the book, How to Become A Straight-A Student, Cal Newport suggests a great way which I find to be really effective. There are two components to this system. The first component is your calendar (Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, etc.), the second is a piece of paper or a note-taking app. I personally find a note-taking app like Notion to be more convenient than a piece of paper. Cal Newport recommends using only 5 minutes in the morning to schedule your plan for that day. After those 5 minutes, you will not be changing your schedule much, if nothing urgent comes up. By being realistic (and even a little pessimistic) about how long something would take you, schedule tasks in your calendar with set start and end times. If anything new comes up during the day, note it down on your paper or app. You would consider the tasks you noted down when scheduling tasks for the next day.

Read the summary of How To Become A Straight-A Student here to get actionable tips on how to learn better.

Work With Related Topics

Interleaving involves working with different sections of the same topic. The main topic could be learning about geometric shapes and each section would deal with a different shape. Or the main topic could be guitar scales and each section would include different scales like the Pentatonic scale, harmonic minor, etc. Interleaving loses its potency if you combine learning guitar scales with learning geometry.

In order to learn the main umbrella topic better, you need to interleave each section within that topic while studying.

Use Interleaving with Other Learning Strategies

Interleaving, alone, is not the best way to learn. Combining it with Spaced Repetition and Retrieval Practice, along with Elaboration, can supercharge your learning and help you retain information better. Your main goal when learning anything for the long term is to retrieve what you have learned to apply your knowledge in real-life situations. Interleaving can help produce better mastery, spacing can help you avoid forgetting what you learned, and retrieval can help you pick out the information you need from memory when required.

You could also use the Feynman Technique and Active Reading to learn better and engage actively with the material.

Other Resources

Flashcards

There are times you have to memorize things. If you are studying to be a doctor, material scientist, or even learning a new language, you have to memorize and do it really well. Flashcards are a great resource to memorize and subsequently recall what you memorized. They are fairly inexpensive, and once you have put time into making them, they can last you a long time.

Buy on Amazon

Flashcards Apps

If you prefer using apps rather than paper flashcards, apps like Anki and Quizlet are great choices and also free. Anki comes with a learning curve but is quite effective. You can create your own decks in both apps to test yourself over and over until you get everything right.

Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Marc A. McDaniel

Drawing from vast amounts of research, Make it Stick explains all the techniques you would need to look at learning as a long term endeavor. The main objective of the book is to equip you to be able to retain what you learn and recall that information in real-life situations. This is a great book to get acquainted with how we can learn better with techniques that seem counterintuitive at first.

Buy on Amazon

How We Learn by Benedict Carey

This is another book to understand how your brain actually works. With research and studies to back up his claims, Benedict Carey does a great job of how we absorb information and learn. The book covers ideas similar to Make it Stick: Forgetting, Spaced Repetition, Fluency of Illusion, etc. The book also highlights why sleeping is important to better learning.

Buy on Amazon

How to Become A Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

Cal Newport was himself a Straight-A student when he first wrote this book. The book is based on surveys of other Straight-A students conducted by Cal Newport. It spells out the way Straight-A students work which would even look effortless on the outside. The book is filled with great tips to manage time, internalize learning, and writing essays and theses.

Read the summary of this book here to get actionable tips on how to learn better.

Buy on Amazon

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