the interleaving strategy
Sky View Middle School boasts a large facility in the Boston area suburb of Leominster, Massachusetts. Typical of many suburban schools, Caucasian students make up a majority of the school population, at about 55 percent. Hispanic students represent 30 percent and approximately half of the students come from a low-income background. 40 percent are English language learners.
Like many schools, Sky View struggles with ensuring that students of all abilities and backgrounds can achieve, and teachers and administrators at the school work hard to help students bridge this gap. “Students are respectful and engaged. It's only when you start to get to know (them) that you learn about their broken homes and challenging lives,” says Sky View teacher Dr. Kim Kelly.
Kelly and Shannon Payette teach math at Sky View, and they experience the typical highs and lows of teaching; from those grand “a-ha” moments to students experiencing frustration, either because they are not understanding the concept behind the math, or because they have limited math skills, from previous struggles.
In a recent interview for the Learning Agency’s Science of Learning video project, Kelly explains that understanding complex concepts “takes a lot longer, and it requires a deeper understanding.” Sometimes “struggling students don’t always get to that level,” without one-on-one interventions and strategies, which can affect the overall pace of the classroom, in general.
Compared to blocked practice, interleaved practice produced higher scores.”
This is something almost any experienced teacher can understand, and is, perhaps, one of the most difficult challenges any teacher faces when a diverse population of student backgrounds and abilities are in a single classroom. Indeed, this is one of the realities of teaching in the 21st century.
Kelly’s colleague, Shannon Payette, shared that, with math instruction, so much of a current lesson in middle school relies on basic mathematical skills that the students should have mastered in lower grades. “We have to find a way of bridging and using back-concepts from third grade, when they started multiplication and division,” Payette states.
Interleaving is a learning strategy that encourages educators and students to “mix up” their learning. In other words, instead of practicing 30 multiplication problems, then 30 division questions, followed by 5 word-problems, the practice is “interleaved.” So maybe one multiplication problem is a word problem, which is then followed by a division problem; and why not throw in some addition and regular multiplication to reinforce those skills, too?
Interleaving can be as simple as substituting our typical teaching pattern of first A, then B then C, to mixing it up:
A professor at Rhode Island College, Megan Sumeracki clarifies; “When you're mixing up topics so that the students are seeing different types of things (in this case math problems) all in a row, this would be interleaving.” Interleaving and spacing, she explains, often go hand in hand, and work well together.
Research supports this interleaving strategy, “compared to blocked practice, interleaved practice produced higher scores,” on immediate and delayed tests, in one study. Other studies support these findings. Basically, interleaving study sessions, learning episodes and practice exercises is a more effective way of gaining skills and fluency.
Could this strategy be used to build bridges for struggling students, without sacrificing the overall progress of the entire class? For example, almost all students can benefit from practicing “old” math concepts like long division, or multiplication tables, while new concepts are explored and interleaved. This might be a way for students who have a gap in their previous knowledge to keep pace with students who are already relatively comfortable with basic math skills, for example.
Understanding complex concepts takes a lot longer, and it requires a deeper understanding.” - Kim Kelly
Likewise, students who are struggling with understanding deeper concepts, so that they can comprehend the “why” something works in math, can practice these skills, mixed in with more specific math problems. Exercises in concepts and theory can be mixed into problems that are more concrete and finite. While the strategy alone will not close the achievement gap, it could potentially help educators engage large classrooms with a wide range of students.
Interleaving is just one of the learning strategies that we at the Learning Agency are exploring within our Science of Learning video project. Teachers, from elementary to the high school level, are “experimenting” with six different strategies in their classrooms. More than a dozen instructors are working with various researchers to fine-tune implementation of the techniques. Teachers and researchers will then be sharing their reflections to share with learning environments across the country.
The ultimate crime is practicing the same thing multiple times in a row. Avoid it like the plague,” says psychologist Nate Kornell.
In a series of blog posts, we’ll cover each strategy and share resources for further exploration of each. The six strategies that we are utilizing are:
Schools are working with researchers Drs. Megan Sumeracki, Yana Weinstein, Stephen Chew, and Regan Gurung. Classrooms from Memphis, Tennessee, East Baton Rouge and Kenner, Louisiana in the southeast United States, as well as Medomack, Maine, and Leominster, Massachusetts, are involved, bringing a wide variety of student and teacher experiences to the study. In addition to teacher and researcher interviews, snippets and moments from classrooms will also be included in the final videos.
We look forward to bringing you more information on the Science of Learning Video Project as it unfolds. Stay tuned!