Interleaved Learning – Improve Results by Mixing It Up

Do you still remember the time you were in school? Chances are that the teachers probably offered you study advice. One particular piece of advise when it came to studying that we recall was “take one subject or topic at a time”. While the intentions were definitely good, it seems likely that it wasn’t necessary the best advice to give. In fact, studies have shown that learning methods that leverage on the opposite – learning a few different things simultaneously – can produce even better results. One of such methods is interleaved learning, and that’s what we’ll look into here.

What is interleaved learning?

Interleaved learning is a method in which one mixes up different topics or forms of practice to facilitate learning. The method is also occasionally referred to as mixed practice or varied practice. Instead of completing one things before moving onto the next one, the learner switches between materials. And that’s where the secret of the method is.

In simple terms, this method of learning works because of the “switching”. The human brain and its cognitive mechanisms such as contextual interference are behind this effect. In practical terms, this means that the increased interference in doing a task forces the learner to use multiple different processing strategies for the topic. This in turn leads to higher learning retention. Interleaved learning also forces the learners to identify the right strategies for tackling a particular problem from their long-term memory, rather than applying the thing they just learned about.

How could we use the method in corporate learning?

In addition to help our personal lives, the method could also be beneficial in corporate learning. Most corporate learning programs often take quite a conventional approach. Usually you’ll have a module on a particular topic, followed by questions (assessment). This type of assessment is certainly not formative enough to really assess learning. It’s more likely that you’ll just be testing short term recall. So, what if we just changed the way we do those questions? Instead of having a small set for particular module, what if we had a big one for a group of modules? This would force the learners to apply the knowledge, instead of just regurgitating it.

Another possible approach could be changing the way we structure learning materials. Normally, you have your “courses” that have a very specific and focused subject matter. But what if we abolished the structure of courses and started working within the framework of topics? Instead of studying a particular course on e.g. how to deliver presentations, the learner could be prompted with various types of not necessarily related materials under the wider umbrella of communication skills. This is similar in philosophy to the resource-based learning strategies that a growing number of organisations are employing.

However, a thing to note when planning interleaved learning is that the topics should never be too similar (so you need to identify right strategies and apply knowledge) nor too unrelated. For instance, pairing up communication training materials with something for technical skills is unlikely to have the desired effect. However, pairing up communication with leadership could work a lot better.

Key takeaways

Interleaved learning is an interesting phenomenon, and certainly good to know about. L&D professionals and learning designers can use the technique to facilitate better and lasting learning. However, even if you’re not a learning designer, the method might be beneficial to incorporate in your own educational endeavours.

Whether you implement it personally or on an organisational level, there’s one thing to note. Interleaved learning is not easy. It feels more difficult, because it is. But that’s exactly why it’s so effective. It forces us to spark those neuron connections and apply knowledge on a wide level. So, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate, quick wins with the method. Rather, focus on the long term, as that’s where the effect tends to really start to show.