Mixing it up (Interleaving) to boost learning

Traditionally, we have used block practice to gain knowledge or skills.

Block practice means that if we have to learn 3 closely related concepts or skills A, B & C, we learn and practice them as AAABBBCCC.

In practice, another strategy of which is catching the attention of cognitive researchers, the skills or concepts are learnt and practiced as ABCABCABC. e.g. If we have to learn forehand and backhand in Tennis, instead of first practicing forehand and then moving on to backhand, we practice them simultaneously.

Block practice has widespread use in learning at all levels from kindergarten to sports to . Some reasons are ease of planning and use and of course convention.

However, over the past 4 decades’ research on Interleaving has shown that it is more effective than block practice in a range of situations. Researchers’ have reported superior results in teaching sports (such as badminton, baseball, basketball etc.), medicine, art appreciation, law, foreign language, math (algebra and geometry).

Interestingly in the research, the advantage of interleaving over block practice increased with the passage of time.  Interleaving gave significant, stable advantages over blocking.

The reasons postulated for this difference are:

  1. It improves the brains ability to discriminate. In Blocking once you know which solution to use repeating it becomes easy (almost by rote). E.g. Remember in math’s, you could solve a question at the back of a chapter because you knew which concept is to be used. When the same kind of question was given along with questions covering other concepts, you may have struggled to solve the question. In Interleaving, your brain must continuously focus on seeing patterns and searching for different solutions. This improves your brains ability to focus on distinguishing features of skills and concepts and that leads to better performance. Basically, it keeps your brain on its toes.
  2. Interleaving strengthens memory associations. In Blocking a single strategy held in short term memory can suffice. E.g. You learnt a chapter and gave a test. A week after you couldn’t recollect the same. With interleaving on the other hand, you have to continuously retrieve different information from long term memory to handle the task at hand. This reinforces neural connections between task and correct response. The result is enhanced learning. Strength of neural connections is why you remember concepts learnt ages ago if you are currently applying them at work (high strength) and forget those that you haven’t used (low strength).

The downside of Interleaving is that it requires more planning on the part of the learning facilitator and effort on the part of the learner initially. Also some level of familiarity with the concept / skills is required before interleaving can be used as a strategy.

This added effort can generate superior and stable results. Also practically, there is no need of extra time, special equipment or training to apply it.

Given the advantages of Interleaving, how can we use it in corporate training ?

For one, we can design the learning intervention such that the learner has to handle more complex situations (using multiple concepts) as we progress in the workshop or course.

This strategy can be used in almost every learning intervention.

e.g. In a recent workshop on “Receiving and Giving Feedback” for general managers and senior managers of a large organisation, we used role-plays as a learning methodology. Though we covered the different concepts sequentially, we evaluated the participants on their ability to use all concepts covered till then.

Keep Learning !

Lovely Kumar is a facilitator, trainer, psychometric assessor and is Director at Larks Learning Pvt. Ltd. She has a unique background which combines economics, management, advertising, sales, teaching and training. She has worked with a range of corporates and academic institutions. Additionally she has obtained international certifications in training and psychometric assessments.

Learn more and reach Lovely Kumar for training workshops or DISC assessments at www.larkslearning.com, lovely@larkslearning.com or 91-9899108659.

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