The Benefits of Interleaving

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant elementary school principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Group of students looking at a globe with their teacher.

What is Interleaving?

Interleaving is a term that refers to mixing various educational topics together. It is sometimes called Mixed Practice. Using interleaving in the classroom means providing students with opportunities to work through various ideas and concepts as opposed to limiting them to one topic or skill at a time. This allows students to make connections and form patterns regarding educational subject matter.

Examples of Interleaving

Interleaving can be done in virtually any subject area. Let’s take interleaving in vocabulary as an example. Let’s say that your students are studying vocabulary words related to geography. In this unit, rather than spending an entire lesson on the meaning of a select group of vocabulary words, you could mix up the learning by breaking the lesson into sections. At the beginning of the lesson you may spend 10 minutes focusing on the selected vocabulary terms, then spend 5  minutes practicing memorization of the terms, then 10 minutes reading and discussing a passage including the terms, and lastly ten minutes creating writing that include the vocabulary terms. By doing this, you are engaging students in different ways to approach subject matter while also mixing in language arts, reading, and writing.

What are the Benefits of Interleaving?

There are several benefits of Interleaving. Firstly, when students are exposed to Interleaving, their brain becomes accustomed to tackling a mix of related concepts and topics. This requires the brain to activate prior knowledge, make new connections and think more critically about subject matter.

Furthermore, a study by Nate Kornell, psychologist at Williams College, revealed that when compared to students learning various paintings of artists in a row, students who explored paintings in mixed order were better at matching the artist to the correct painting than those who had studied in a more conventional way. According to the study, when materials are mixed up, students begin to notice both similarities and differences within subject matter, giving students a deeper understanding of objectives.

Additionally, Interleaving is thought to aid students in retention of new information. This is done by helping students build on prior knowledge and create connections between subject matter. It also allows students to think more globally and consider connections between subject matter that they may otherwise not have made.

Tips for Interleaving in Education

Interleaving is a different way to approach subject matter with students that can be very beneficial. The following tips can be helpful in incorporating Interleaving into the classroom.

Keep practice problems to a minimum

For example, when assigning mixed math problems with various operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) assign a small number of problems so that students do not become overwhelmed.

Incorporate Interleaving into Centers or Small Groups

Using Interleaving in small groups and center rotations can be a good way to try out interleaving by allowing students to rotate through various subject matter and ways of learning (teacher led, virtual instruction, collaborative activities). 

Use Interleaving in Units and Projects

Take advantage of utilizing themed units and fun projects to integrate subject matter. For example, have students complete a research project on any country of their choosing in which students can explore a variety of information about the country from the country’s currency and financial status, to the country’s government, to cultures and geographical descriptions. This mixes in a variety of topics while staying focused on the assigned unit/project.

Consider Pacing

Remember that district pacing guides will still need to be followed when using Interleaving learning. This will mean that mapping out the pacing of curriculum will be key in determining what material to interleave so that all objectives are addressed and none are left out or rushed through.

Relate Content in Some Way

Interleaving is most beneficial when the content of lessons are in some way related. Using similar content, such as types of reptiles and types of mammals is more likely to help learners compare and contrast information in a meaningful way.

Differentiate

Don’t forget to differentiate when Interleaving content. Be on the lookout for students who struggle with a specific topic or content and be ready to intervene when needed.

Interleaving is a great way to mix up the content students are receiving and to help students build connections. Keep in mind that Interleaving effectively will take time and that it may not work for all students. Some students may need intervention and a focus on one topic/skill at a time if they are struggling with subject matter. It is important to always reflect on one’s practice and use data to drive instruction. Don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new. Interleaving may just be the thing your students need to make the connections they have not yet made!

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