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When students search for study tips and learning methods that can help them improve their habits and grades, experts often talk about focusing and studying one topic at a time.

This is a good strategy if there’s enough time and the topics are not too complex. However, as many students and educators would note, the course content only gets more complicated as the students advance to higher grade levels. Therefore, students have to learn other strategies that will allow them to study various topics while broadening their capacity to understand these complex topics.

What if I told you that you could alternate between topics and reap the same (if not more) learning benefits than if you took one topic at a time?

Related reading: How to Study Using Spaced Practice

What is Interleaving? 

Interleaving is a learning method that involves studying a mix of different topics. This is a systematic mixing of topics—not random. And like any learning technique, the main goal of interleaving (mixing) topics is to improve learning.   

The principles of Interleaving learning can be applied when learning different topics. See an example below:

You have a World History exam coming up, which you have to study for. The exam coverage encompasses Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. This includes the life, society, politics, arts, and culture of the times.

Should you study each topic one at a time, or should you switch between topics? 

Studying for this test using the interleaving method means learning about the history of countries during specific eras (Medieval, Renaissance, etc.) and comparing what was happening in each country and see if there are any connections there. For test preparation, you can use the interleaving method on a subject-specific level. This could mean mixing up the different types of questions per subject.

How the Interleaving Method Works 

When using the interleaving method, it’s not just about picking the most random topics and studying them interchangeably. To maximize the benefits, there has to be a system to it, from setting a goal to the actual implementation of the technique.

Here is an example of how to do it:

  1. Start with a goal in mind. In the case of studying history, one goal can be to understand how the historical events happening in one country can affect other countries.
  2. Choose topics to study. Studying per era and interleaving the historical events of different countries can facilitate a broader understanding of world history.

Note: learners can choose to interleave different topics from one subject (as in the World History example) or choose to study multiple subjects.

  1. Devote enough time for studying each topic. To thoroughly learn and understand a topic, students have to devote a sufficient amount of studying. Do not switch to a different topic or subject should the current one becomes more challenging.
  2. Mix it up by spacing them throughout the week and using a variety of study methods if needed. It is best to follow a schedule as this creates a system for learning.
  3. Make connections between the concepts and ideas that you have learned. This is the most crucial part, as this is the step that adds depth to the learning process.

The interleaving method challenges the brain to constantly retrieve information as students go back and forth between topics. Thus, students are required to access information that is stored in their long-term memory. If anything, this shows that relying on information that is stored in the short-term memory is not sufficient.

What It Is Not

Now that we have explored what interleaving is, it is time to explore it as it relates to other concepts: blocked practice, spaced repetition, and multitasking. 

Blocked practice requires students to study one subject before moving on to the next topic. In a way, it is the opposite of the interleaving method. This is the method that has been discussed in many education and learning circles.

In spaced repetition, the brain is challenged by putting gaps in your study schedule. In the interleaving strategy, the gap is filled in by a different topic—the “spacing” is filled in with a topic that is meant to be mixed with the current one being studied.

Both interleaving and spaced repetition require students to use retrieval practice. In spaced repetition, students have to recall and retrieve information that they deliberately forgot. In interleaving, students have to retrieve the information they previously learned and connect it to the one that they are currently learning. 

Interleaving is not multitasking. It might seem like the same thing on the surface level, but multitasking in learning implies learning a handful of topics on a surface level while not really mastering any of them.

The point of interleaving is to explore various topics that are somehow related to each other that would hopefully lead to mastery of a subject—doing so systematically and following a schedule.  

The Interleaving Technique is Not Always the Best Option

Interleaving is attributed to introducing variety into a student’s study schedule. Instead of studying one topic at a time, they are asked to explore two or more topics and mix them most productively, promoting learning and mastery of a given topic.  

The interleaving method is often compared with blocked practice because these two are different. However, they both serve other functions and cater to the needs of different types of learners. That is to say, interleaving might be effective and efficient, but so is blocked practice.

Students have to have the ability to use different learning strategies when faced with various topics to help them achieve their academic goals. Aside from interleaving and blocked practice, there are other methods like mind mapping, the Leitner method, SQ3R, Feynman technique, among many others. These techniques have their own merit and are designed to help different types of learners. However, there is no one way or one best method that can work for everyone.

Benefits

Interleaving has a lot of benefits for students and adults. While there are many study and learning techniques out there, it wouldn’t hurt to try interleaving, especially if you already have an existing study routine or are good at making and following schedules.

Interleaving requires studying a mixture of topics, and if done regularly (following a plan), it can help students retain information while making connections between concepts.

The interleaving method is said to help develop a person’s capability and capacity for problem solving and categorization. In addition, because students have to study a few topics at one, they learn to differentiate one concept from another. Likewise, it helps strengthen the memory. As they make connections, they have to recall information that they previously learned.

Because students are constantly retrieving information and making connections, various parts of the brain are activated at a single study session. Thus, the interleaving effect is called such as a result of learning better due to using the interleaving method.

In addition, interleaving topics can train people’s brains to differentiate and discriminate between topics that may be similar to each other.

Interleaving helps when studying science and math subjects but can also work for social sciences (as cited in the example above). In a subject like math, where students are taught to use various formulas to solve the same equation, they have to understand the fundamental differences and similarities with the formulas and why one method is more appropriate than the other despite arriving at the same answer. 

On a practical level, the interleaving method is relatively easy to implement into one’s study routine. Students have to study for multiple subjects in a semester anyway. The interleaving method is just one of the ways to put a system to the learning.

These benefits can be helpful even in adulthood and working life. People have to handle multiple projects at once. Students can apply the skills and aptitudes that they learned while doing the interleaving method.

Focusing by taking on multiple topics

Interleaving has a paradoxical benefit in the sense that by mixing topics together, a person is able to focus more so that they can learn and retain as much information while studying one subject. When that happens, they can tap into this information when they study for the next topic and keep accessing it whenever needed.

By extension, interleaving develops students’ ability to transfer skills and knowledge that they learned from one subject area that might be applicable to another.

While doing one thing at a time (in this case, one subject at a time) is almost always associated with boosting focus, so can a carefully planned mixture of topics and questions. 

Final Thoughts

The interleaving method is a learning technique that is labor-intensive at first because it involves careful planning of study sessions and selecting content that will be interleaved. However, this can have long-term benefits as it facilitates higher-order and critical thinking skills. While blocked learning has been spoken so highly about for teaching students to focus, interleaving topics can do the same thing while boosting the learning capacity of students.

The interleaving method may not work for everyone, but students have to at least be aware of the other study methods that they can utilize when what they’re using no longer serves them. 

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Patricia Alfonso

Patricia Alfonso is an educator and researcher who earned her master's degree in guidance and counseling from Ateneo de Manila. She specializes in developing school counseling programs for schools.

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