Last week, Lars Larson challenged us to integrate interleaving into our courses, basing his proposal on principles found in Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s Make it Stick (2014). One simple approach to interleaving is to bridge the introduction of material over two classes while also working on a different topic or concept. Although I know to do this, I sometimes fall for trying to package an important concept into one class session. This occurred last week in my Maximizing Study Abroad course. I had planned to have students explain and apply material from a book chapter on Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) through discussion and in-class group work. Since we had just returned from spring break, I also used the beginning of the hour for students to recall what they had been learning prior to the break. This took a bit longer than I expected, as did our group work, and by the end of the hour, we were not done with my lesson plan. As I gathered my things at the end of class, I realized how happy I was not to have finished my intended plan. I could now interleave the material by having students read over the week for the next topic on making cultural inferences and then guiding students the next week to recall Bennett’s DMIS and continue committing it more deeply to memory through elaboration and application.
But why interleave learning? The authors of Make it Stick cite studies that indicate the benefits of interleaving for retrieval of past learned material and developing the ability to discriminate between different kinds of concepts and problems. Interleaving our subject matter also supports effortful learning and what they refer to as “distributed practice” or learning that is spaced out over time. The opposite of distributed practice is massed practice, which includes trying to learn material in one block, as in my original lesson plan, or through cramming, which unfortunately is likely to happen on campus for some students in about a month. James Lang (2016) also discusses interleaving in his recent Small Teaching and cites supporting research findings from math and language learning. He suggests models for shifting from blocked class sessions to interleaved class sessions. Again, the key to interleaving is not finishing a topic or concept before introducing another. For example (Lang, 2016, p. 79):
From Blocked Class Sessions
Monday: Topic A, Problem-Solving Session
Wednesday: Topic B, Problem-Solving Session
Friday: Topic C, Problem-Solving Session, Quiz
To Interleaved Class Sessions
Monday: Topic A, Problem-Solving Session, Topic B
Wednesday: Topic B, Problem-Solving Session, Topic C
Friday: Topic C, Problem-Solving Session, Review or Quiz
Lang notes that students may perceive interleaved learning as moving more slowly, but he cites both laboratory and classroom research that indicates better retention and recall among learners who practice interleaving. Applying interleaving also promotes relating concepts to each other in the classroom and through assessments.
Like the authors of Make it Stick, Lang also promotes frequent low-stakes quizzing and other retrieval practices, such as the following quick classroom assessment techniques:
- Opening questions that prompt students to remind us what we were working on in the last class session;
- Closing activities such as a minute paper in which student list key take-aways or their own questions from the day;
- Closing a session through a short quiz or solving a final problem;
- Eliciting responses that connect the new topic to some other aspect of the course material.
By engaging students in retrieval practice within an interleaved classroom, we will increase the likelihood of their ability to recall and discriminate concepts, connections, and applications of the material we teach into the future.
As we embrace Lars’ challenge from last week, we can use some of the above approaches to integrate interleaving into your course and lesson plans. For example, when I meet with my Maximizing Study Abroad class next, we will (1) finish some work on Bennett’s intercultural sensitivity scale, (2) interleave it with questioning how it might connect to stages of cultural adjustment, and then (3) move on to the first stage of learning about making cultural inferences.
If you would like to discuss interleaving teaching and learning, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey White is an instructor of German and the Learning Commons administrator in Buckley Center 163. To discuss with Jeffrey how your students can practice and enhance their learning the Learning Commons, contact him at x7141.