3rd post of 9 in the Small Teaching Series
Small Teaching by J.M. Lang presents methods for making small changes in your teaching practices (hence the name) that can significantly improve your students’ learning. Each chapter provides the research-based evidence behind the practices Lang proposes so you can have confidence that Lang’s ideas work. The Coulter Faculty Commons will be boiling the Small Teaching chapters down into blog posts to provide instructors with concepts they can apply to a lesson, a class, or a course.
“A rose by any other name…” (from Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)
Lang had to call it something, so interleaving it is. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that interleaving didn’t involve some sort of quantum-level warped space-time learning technique. The truth is a bit more mundane as Lang explained interleaving as, “… the practice of spending some time learning one thing and then pausing to concentrate on learning a second thing before having quite mastered that ﬁrst thing, and then returning to the ﬁrst thing, and then moving onto a third thing, and then returning to the second thing, and so forth. In short, it involves the process of both spacing and mixing learning activities— the spacing happening by virtue of the mixing” (Lang, 2016, p. 68). That’s not as cool as a tachyon generator powered by a bucket of dilithium, but infinitely more practical.
Lang noted the combination of interleaving and retrieval (covered in an earlier blog linked below) implies that all major exams should be cumulative (cue the student groans). This does not mean that the third major exam should be evenly divided between the material from the first two exams and the material from the third unit, but that each exam should harken back to what has previously been learned and assessed. The revisiting of material shouldn’t be limited to major exams either. Lang proposed three ways to work this concept into your classroom instruction:
- Open each class session by posting a test question from a previous exam or a potential test question related to previous course content. Give students time to consider and discuss their answers.
- Close class sessions by asking students to create a test question based on that day’s material and pose that question back to them in future class sessions.
- Open or close class sessions by asking students to open their notebooks to a previous day’s class session and underline the three most important principles from that day; allow a few moments for a brief discussion of what they featured from their notes. (Lang, 2016, pp. 76–77)
In the section on Principles, Lang discusses last the value of explaining to your students the benefits of interleaving, how it is incorporated into the course assessments, and the nature of short- and long-term learning, but I think it is vital your students understand the reasoning behind your course design. If you don’t, interleaving may appear as a serious case of “this instructor doesn’t know what they are doing.”
To recap, here are the interleaving quick tips that Lang proposes:
- Reserve a small part of your major exams (and even the minor ones, such as quizzes) for questions or problems that require students to draw on older course content.
- Open or close each class session with small opportunities for students to retrieve older knowledge, to practice skills developed earlier in the course, or apply old knowledge or skills to new contexts
- Create weekly mini-review session in which students spend the final 15 minutes of the last class session of the week applying that week’s content to some new question or problem.
- Use quiz and exam questions that require students to connect new material to older material or to revise their understanding of previous content in light of newly learned material
- In blended or online courses, stagger the deadlines and quiz dates to ensure that students benefit from the power of spaced learning.
As always, if you’d like to discuss these or other ideas with the Coulter Faculty Commons you can schedule an appointment at https://affiliate.wcu.edu/cfc/consultations/
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/hunter-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4455000