A New Method To Significantly Improve Your Study: Interleaving Study Method 

In previous posts of the How to study more effectively with Pandanese series, we introduced the two most powerful learning methods discovered to date: spaced repetition system (SRS) and retrieval practice.

But other effective study techniques can increase your learning efficiency, too. And we’ll be covering one in this post – the interleaving study method. 

Read on to find out exactly what this method is and how it can benefit you on your Chinese language journey. We also have a guide for you on how to apply the interleaving method to your learning. 

What is the Interleaving study method? 

Interleaving means when you study, you switch between two or more related topics instead of focusing solely on one topic at a time. 

Let’s say you have a big final Math exam coming up at school. There are a lot of different areas to go over, like Algebra, Geometry, and Arithmetic. How are you going to plan your study session? 

Would you do what most people do? Focus on one individual subject per study session?

Alternatively, you could divide a two-hour study session into 4 x 30-minute sections, with each section focused on a different subject. This is the interleaving method.

Interleaving vs. Blocking

Interleaving is constantly compared to the blocking study method in scientific research, where you dedicate time to grasp and practice one topic at a time before moving to another. 

Source: Inner Drive Education Blog

As you can see, the two methods are completely opposite to each other. While you may find the blocking technique is more popular and seems more commonsensical, researchers have found evidence that interleaving often surpasses blocking for a variety of subjects, from sports to category learning. 

In one early study, published in 1986, students were taught three different styles of badminton serves. Participants who used the interleaving method had an improved and stronger memory of each serve type compared to the blocking learning method. It also increased their ability to cope with new situations, such as serving from the opposite side of the court. Later research on baseball, basketball, and other sports reported similar outcomes, too.

Besides sports, another study in 2003 found that applying the interleaving study method helped medical students generate more accurate ECG diagnoses than blocking.

Interleaving showed its immense potential again when researchers found students using it could distinguish among similar concepts. For instance, they could avoid mistaking words with similar spellings (e.g., allusion instead of illusion) or adopt the wrong strategy for a math problem because it resembles a different type of problem.

Additionally, recent research in schools showed that interleaving provides huge and long-lasting gains for an essential skill: math. This finding is so promising it may transform how we learn math and how we learn in general. 

Isn’t interleaving similar to the spaced repetition system? 

People often mix these two study methods up. However, they are not the same techniques!

The spacing effect is all about time gaps and how you space your learning over a period of time. Meanwhile, interleaving is switching topics during a study session. Though both methods are in opposition to the cramming style, each breaking a huge chunk of learning into smaller sessions, their core mechanisms are different.    

Benefits of the interleaving study method 

Mixing up topics during your study session can offer a wide range of benefits:

  • Recall new knowledge better
  • Eliminate confusion between similar concepts  
  • Quickly grasp new skills
  • Enhance existing abilities
  • Strengthen short-term memory 
  • Improve multitasking skills 

Interleaving offers a massive advantage because it trains our brains to react and solve problems quickly. In the blocking method, you drill on solving a type of problem repeatedly. You only need to memorize the correct methodology once from the first question. Because of that, your brain automatically solves the subsequent similar questions without the need of recalling or rethinking the methodology.

However, that’s not helpful in real-life situations like a test, where you continuously switch between different problems. That’s why you have to be good at dealing with different topics simultaneously, and interleaving can train your brain to do just that. It forces your brain to identify problems, choose the correct approach and solve them quickly without any warm-up needed through similar questions beforehand. 

Generally, interleaving offers multiple benefits for your study process. Even better, it’s easy to implement.

Let’s move on and find out how you can apply interleaving in your study!

How to use the interleaving study method? 

To apply interleaving effectively, make sure you follow these 3 steps: 

1. Know what you want to interleave 

The first step is to decide the content you want to interleave. For example, it can be deciding the different types of literature or related physics and math questions to mix.

Below are a few tips to guarantee the best outcome when choosing your interleaved topics: 

  • Don’t interleave topics that are too similar: when you learn and practice similar knowledge at one time, it’s more likely you’re using the blocking method rather than interleaving, which means there won’t be any benefits gained from it. 
  • Don’t interleave totally unrelated topics: If the subjects you want to interleave are too different from one another, the mixed practice may obstruct, instead of facilitate learning. Interleaving different sorts of math problems, for example, may be good, but interleaving math with history may be counterproductive by making you feel confused and distracted.
  • Understand your goal: If you have a clear idea of what you expect from using the interleaving method, you can better organize and plan what you should mix up in a study session. For example, if your goal is to stop mistaking similar-looking Chinese words, pick different themes to group them separately (maybe their spellings or the words’ meanings). Next, interleave these themes, and you will see and remember their distinctions better. 

Bear in mind that there’s no perfect formula for everyone to use interleaving as its effectiveness depends on various factors, such as the materials, the environment, and your own preferences and abilities. It’s best if you can try out different approaches and evaluate the effectiveness of each way, then you’ll know the one that works best in your particular circumstances.

2. Choose the pattern of interleaving 

This step is basically about how you interleave. Should you interleave material in a random or systematic manner? For example, when you learn Chinese vocabulary, you can randomly interleave all kinds of words or systematically mix words in verb form, followed by nouns. 

Imagine you have to study 3 different yet related topics A, B, and C. 

If you follow a blocked study schedule, where you focus on one topic at a time, here is what your study session would look like: 

AAAABBBBCCCC

If you want to interleave these topics in a way that you only spend a short and equal amount of time on each topic before moving on to the next one (systematically), your schedule would be like: 

ABCABCABCABC

Or you can spend more time on each topic like this:

AABBCCAABBCC

Another way, you can just interleave topics at the end of the study session:

AAABBBCCCABC

Alternatively, you can interleave your study in a random manner. The way to do this is … just mix them up, which could end up like this: 

ACBABBBAACCC

Or like this:

ACBABBCAACCB

To know which one is effective for you, try them out!! 

3. Be aware that interleaving can be challenging 

As beneficial as the interleaving study method is, it requires a lot of patience, time, and effort. During an interleaved study session, you’ll likely feel somewhat frustrated, confused, and possibly less confident. More importantly, you may feel that it’s not beneficial at all. That’s why many give up trying interleaving at the early stage.

However, don’t give up!! Remember that though interleaving can sometimes hinder performance in the short term, it generally leads to better learning outcomes in the long run. So have the right attitude and mindset from the start and have realistic expectations about how quickly it works. 

Hold on and keep trying! 

Final thoughts 

Interleaving is a new and promising study method where you mix up related topics to study at a time to boost learning productivity. To use interleaving effectively, make sure you are clear on what you want to interleave and how you interleave the materials. And again, have the right attitude and expectations towards it! 

Please share your thoughts and experience about interleaving in the comment section!

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