How to Use Interleaving to Improve Learning

You may not have heard of the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, but for teachers, he is someone worth finding out about.

According to his "forgetting curve", if we do not revisit acquired knowledge, then, as time goes on, the chance of us recalling that knowledge at a later date will become significantly diminished.

For those teaching in schools, that is something we continually need to keep in mind.

Students are bombarded with new information for up to six hours a day; this occurs five days a week and for 39 weeks of the year. I’m no mathematician, but this seems like a hell of a lot of knowledge to file away neatly into their brains.

Adapting Teaching

So with the current GCSE meaning that students have little choice but to take 100 per cent exam-based assessments for a majority of subjects, which are all stacked up in their final few weeks of Year 11, how can we ensure that they are able to access these vast stores of knowledge when the time comes?

When I plan for my own Year 11 classes, I compensate for the forgetting curve by ensuring that I give my students the maximum opportunity to revisit and recall knowledge. I do this by interleaving GCSE English language and literature throughout Year 11.

Retrieval Practice

Interleaving works on the basis that different topics are interwoven and alternated between, as opposed to the traditional method of block learning, where students study a single topic for a whole half-term or term.

This has taken careful planning. It requires a long-term view, working out the best points at which to interleave text study, key skills and exam approaches to ensure students retain what they have been taught over time.

Long-term Planning

Taking a lesson per week and dedicating it to a key literature text or language skill could be an effective way to start interleaved planning.

Question 5 for both of the English language papers is worth 40 marks, or 50 per cent of each paper; this means that writing should be revisited frequently. Having a “writing Wednesday”, using literature texts as a stimulus, could be a judicious choice when planning an interleaved curriculum.

Weekly writing lessons should then be interleaved with reading skills. Covering a range of fiction and non-fiction extracts, which can be creatively linked with literature texts if deemed necessary, and revisiting analysis, evaluation, synthesis and comparison at varying points, can help ensure that students are recapping and recalling learned skills frequently.

And don’t feel afraid to visit more than one literature text per week. It may feel odd at first to be talking about Macbeth one day and Blood Brothers the next, but remember, students have already studied these texts in their entirety and everything they do from now on should be a matter of recall.

Total Recall

This constant recall will first ensure students are given lots of opportunities to draw that knowledge out from their vast memory vaults (thus ensuring retention), and secondly, will enable you to see whether there are any significant gaps in this knowledge.

Finally, if you are unfortunately constricted by school policies that require you to teach in blocks and you find yourself unable to interleave, as described above, a simple way of guaranteeing that students have the occasion to recall learned knowledge is through carefully planned and spaced retrieval practice that is embedded into lessons.

You can do this by, for example, giving pupils a starter task of a "five-a-day" or "give me five" low-stakes quiz covering different skills or areas. These are easily planned and are not a drain on lesson time.

Even these minor acts of retrieval on a regular basis will ultimately have an effect on students’ knowledge retention over time.

And you have Ebbinghaus to thank.

Laura Tsabet is lead practitioner of teaching and learning at a school in Bournemouth. She tweets @lauratsabet