What is interleaving and how can it boost learning?

What is interleaving and how can it boost learning?

For years, there has been the fervent search for the best way to study. Students and professionals alike are constantly under pressure to scale one test or another and be the best among the rest. So, finding the best way to study, memorize and understand as much as possible is a necessity.

There are various options and methods that have been developed overtime,  especially when you have to study multiple books and courses. This is also applicable in the case of arts and crafts like learning musical instruments, language learning and so on. The most common is the Blocked Practice, one that involves paying attention to one topic and studying it thoroughly before picking up another. On the other hand, there is Interleaving.

Proponents of Interleaving have continued to promote the practice as an effective way to boost learning. But the first question is, can it really boost learning? If so, how? Several studies done on the subject, including reports by Scientific America have shown that interleaving can have far bigger impact on learners than other methods in specific subjects and skills like math. There are certain ways this is done and we’ll talk about them as we go on.

What is interleaving in learning?

Interleaving in learning is often described as a method that involves studying parts of different courses or topics within the same period, as opposed to finishing with one before moving to the other. It refers to mixing multiple subjects in a bid to improve learning. This learning also applies to skills. As Stephen Pan, a Psychologist with the UCSD asserts, you can do this by switching back and forth between skills or topics (in one day for instance) rather than paying attention to just one skill or topic for the whole day.

For students, this can be different topics within a subject (like solving multiple but similar math problems in one day or within a stipulated period). It can also be different subjects within the same period (like switching between English and Literature or Biology and Chemistry). The overall aim is to enhance the learning process and get the most within the shortest possible time. A lot of people are actively engaged in this kind of learning as a way of boosting the process and enhancing knowledge.

Another example where interleaving can be adopted is in learning a foreign language. For instance, instead of learning verb conjugations over a stretch of two weeks or even a month, you could mix things up and have 15 verb conjugations, 15 vocab lessons and 15 subject-verb agreement. Experts say this method allows learners to create patterns and establish connections between the different aspects and activities. So, instead of resurfacing past knowledge which is likely to lead to mistakes, interleaving helps you recall strategies for solving the problems you encounter.

The ultimate lesson in interleaving is to avoid repetition by varying your practice. Some psychologists believe that interleaving helps with a broader understanding of what lies beneath the surface as different examples are worked out in succession.

Basically, interleaving works because, by making you move from one subject to another, you forget some information in the previous subject and your brain is forced to retrieve it. This is great for your natural pathways and your memory function as well.

What are the benefits of interleaving?

Improved Performance

The entire essence of seeking out improved learning methods is to boost performance at school, work or anyplace else learning is required. Performance is improved greatly on multiple tasks, rather than using the blocked method which focuses on just one task over a prolonged period. For instance, an interlaced practice for three different subjects, Math, English and Science can be represented by their first letters in the model: MESMESMESMES rather than a blocked format, MMMMEEEESSSS. The truth is, at the end of the day, each subject is stretched across the entire study period when interleaved.

Improved Focus

Focus is very crucial to learning. With interleaving, your brain is constantly tasked to focus on different subjects or tasks simultaneously (paying attention to the different dynamics, methods and characteristics of each task). You’re also searching for different solutions in quick succession, enhancing your ability to learn the critical features of concepts and skills. This can also ensure you always choose the right response, because you do not just understand single concepts in isolation, but their connections with other concepts and what makes them a unique part of a whole.

Improved Technical Skills

By interleaving, you are able to cite and use different examples across subjects and topics, rather than relying on the same category for examples during study or practice. This has been known to boost technical skills in people.

Memory Boost

By mixing up your learning process, taking different topics or subjects at a time, your brain forgets some information naturally, but is then forced again to retrieve them and focus more on the areas that require more attention. Psychologists call this “spacing” (see my post on spaced repetition here). Some others call it “distributed practice”. It can help increase retrieval and enhance your brain’s ability to store important information for the long-term; a great asset for tests and exams.


Interleaving forces you to interrupt one topic or subject with another. This interference, however, ensures you take up effective learning strategies in a bid to attain retention and information and skill transfer across different contexts. This certainly calls for better learning methods.

Enhanced Critical Thinking

The ability to assess and analyse complex situations and problems is another important benefit of interleaving. In one 2011 study, complex legal scenarios were accurately assessed by students using interlaced learning. Psychologists have been able to prove over time that problems contain both ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ features. With interleaving, you’re able to go beyond the surface and critically address the deep features for better results. This is why it is recommended largely for math and other problem-related subjects.

How Mixed Practice Can Boost Your Learning

We’ve already established what mixed practice or interleaving means. One thing to note is that interleaving promotes spaced learning which involves studying or practicing a particular topic or subject at intervals over a long period. Here, you return to the subject at intervals, while studying different materials in between. This is opposed to blocked practice where you focus on a single topic in just one sitting for a period (maybe a day, a week or a month) before moving on to another. This form of mixed practice using distributed learning has some very notable benefits for learning.

In one review of more than 250 studies, it was discovered across all topics that students who spaced their learning recalled more information (by up to 10%) than those who studied in blocks. Imagine you have examinations coming up and you need to cover different subjects and topics within a limited time. Interleaving or mixed practice becomes the way to go because you’ll be able to cover more areas across board than focusing on just a single subject. What’s more, with block practice, there’s a greater chance of forgetting much of the subject you study in the early periods as new information would’ve overshadowed them.

With mixed practice, you’ll always go back to a previous subject and continue to refresh that information in your brain, even as you take in new ones.

What does research say about interleaved learning?

Blocked learning has continued to be used extensively in schools and other learning environments across the world. Cramming so much of a particular topic the night before may help you pass an exam, but there’s a great chance you won’t remember much of it hours, days or weeks later. With interleaving, retention is enhanced. As Professor of Psychology and Director at UCLA, Dr Robert Bjork says, interleaving requires constant retrieval of information which means you can transfer more general rules to multiple learning areas.

More research carried out at the University of Florida was able to prove that interleaving promotes retention and recall better than blocked learning. This corroborates Professor Bjork’s findings that recall is enhanced through interleaving because- by mixing up different topics- we’re able to see similarities and differences between them, and this promotes deeper understanding.

How to use interleaving

Mix related materials/skills.

This is important because interleaving works better when there is a level of relatedness between the subjects or activities. For instance, you’ll do better mixing up different parts of a language study than moving from one language to another. Furthermore, it would make more sense to interleave different forms of practices in basketball- pass, dunk, dribble, etc than to introduce swimming in between.

Blend interleaving with other strategies.

It is important to mix up interleaving with other learning tactics so that you can get the best out of it. If possible, you can switch locations occasionally to help cement the knowledge and match information to places. This is a great way to promote recall.

Be deliberate.

The best way to do this is to have meaningful targets. You already have different other tactics like spacing and retrieval practice. Being deliberate means spurring your effectiveness by setting targets and working towards achieving them.

Have some basic knowledge.

It is not advised to use interleaving as a first option when you’re just starting out on a subject. You should have some background knowledge for interleaving to work best. In school situations, it is assumed you already attended class, so it will be easier to adopt the method.

Mix the old and the new.

Do not simply focus on the new material you were given days ago. What about the one you studied last month? Mixing them up will give you a broader and deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Final Words…

If you’re at this point, you should already have a clear understanding of what interleaving is. This post has also provided tips on how to get the best from interleaved practice. This does not in any way conclude that other methods like blocked practice does not work. However, following specific rules and guidelines and knowing what works for you, interleaving is sure to boost your learning better.

Be sure to check out our other posts on studying tips here

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