Learn Better: Interleaved vs. Blocked Learning


                I'm sure many of us have heard a professor say, "Don't start looking at this the night before the exam, you'll never learn it." It's easy to disregard their warning because you know you've crammed for plenty of exams before and so far you have done fine. And then comes finals week. We scramble through our notes, hopelessly trying to re-learn a semester's worth of material in a few days.


Why can't I get this problem? I aced this test a month ago!


                Current research suggests that our traditional learning style, block learning, may not be the best way to learn. Block learning is the style of learning we have become accustomed too since we began our academic careers. It is the process of concentrating on a specific skill or lesson until it is mastered. After that material is learned, students are taught the next skill, and the next, and the next. And why not? According to Robert A. Bjork a psychologist at the University of California, "The result (of block learning) is that you feel you have learned the material really well." In a study involving students learning different painter's styles using both methods, 80% of students claimed that the block style helped them learn better, despite testing better when using the an interleaved method.


                The interleaved method consists of learning new material while at the sametime reviewing past materials. This creates a sense of struggle while learning, especially compared to the fluency of a subject felt after learning with the block style. Similarly, a New York Times article points out a common misconception: if information is easy to absorb, we feel that we have learned it well. However, when we struggle and work hard to understand information, we will recall it better. Although the interleaved method takes more effort and a longer period of time, studies have shown students hold onto this information for a longer period of time.


                A recent New York Times article highlights a study done on interleaving with eight seventh-grade pre-algebra classes.  Half of the classes studied linear equations and proportions using the interleaved method, while the other half learned graphs and slopes using the blocked method. After learning the first two types of problems, the roles were reversed. At the end of the semester, the students were surprised with a cumulative exam. On material learned via the interleaved method, students scored a 72 percent, while only scoring 38 percent on material learned via blocked method. Researchers are very excited about this idea. Although larger tests are necessary, it is exciting to think how learning in classrooms can be altered if interleaved learning is practiced at early grade levels.


Michael, I agree that blocked learning often leads to students cramming right before an exam and forgetting the information right after that exam is over. The interleaving learning style you mention seems to solve that problem, because one cannot just forget the material after the exam since that material will keep coming back in future lessons. Something else I think you need to take account of when talking about learning styles is that each person is a different kind of learner. I may do well with memorizing information while the next person needs practical experience to learn a new lesson.

PsychologyToday offers a quiz that test what type of learner you are, try it out!

This is all interesting, and would be very useful for people in charge of curriculum development. It made me wonder, "If there is a smarter way to teach, is there a smarter way to study?". I came across this article on Buzzfeed that might be helpful for you all at some point this semester!

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