A Retention Aid – Interleaving

I recently went on a hiking vacation in Utah with a group of like-minded people. Our guide was a professional wildlife conservationist and geologist.  As we hiked along trails, he pointed out many different species of birds and trees as well as geology formations.  This information was interesting but a lot to take in as I concentrated on breathing and avoiding boulders on the steep paths.  When we encountered something we had seen previously, he would ask us if we could recall the name or something about it.  Sometimes he would also use the opportunity to ask us a few questions about other things we had seen.

By the end of the trip I was able to identify 5 different types of pine trees, 3 type of hawks, and many different desert mountain flowers and plants.  Pretty cool….considering that my goal was to hike and enjoy the scenery and I really didn’t care whether or not I learned the names of the flora and fauna.

Why was I able to have such good recall?  Our guide, a former teacher, used a technique called “interleaving.”  This teaching/learning technique involves mixing up recall and practice nonsequentially.  It is the opposite of “block practice”, where lesson, practice, and recall are done all at once.  Think about it this way:   If you want to teach 3 learning points, A, B, and C, a block practice session would look something like this:  AAABBBCCC.   An interleaved practice session would look like this:  ACBABCB AC (randomized).

Numerous studies support the effectiveness of interleaving vs block practice to achieve long-term learning and retention.  (Interestingly, many people in studies who used interleaved practice performed worse than their counterparts using block practice during the practice session, but performed better when tested at a later date.)

Here are some suggestions for how to use interleaving in your training.  Detailed descriptions of how organizations such as Farmers Insurance and Jiffy Lube use it in their training are in the book Make It Stick (good title!) by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel.

  1. Begin your teaching – whether live, virtual, synchronous, or asynchronous – with a story or two that illustrates the application of several learning points.

  2. As you present each learning point, relate it back to the story and point out how it was used, could have been used, and so on.

  3. As the learning module(s) progresses and you go on to other topics, randomly ask questions about one or more of the previously-presented learning points and relate back to the application story. 

  1. After the learning event (class or elearning module) is finished, continue randomly quizzing via occasional emails.  For more information about after-training technologies to do this, see my white paper Training Transfer Technologies.

  2. Consider using hard copy aids such as flash cards (digital versions could be created in PowerPoint) to randomize quizzing.

While my hiking guide used this technique intuitively (I asked him), many of us should do it intentionally.  I have made some adjustments to classes I have designed to accommodate this technique.  I’d like to hear from other trainers who use who or are trying interleaving.

Note:  The term interleaving is also used in computer disc storage.  Here it refers to rearranging blocks of digital information on storage discs to improve speed of access.

Until next time…


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