So you’re teaching a series of skills and want people to practice what they’ve learned.

Should you have them practice Skill 1 until they’ve mastered it, then move on to Skill 2, and so on?

Or should you teach multiple skills first, and save the practice for afterwards?

Research shows that the second approach – known as “interleaving” – yields better results. But be prepared for pushback if you take this approach, because people will struggle more during the practice sessions.

The struggling is a good thing. It’s what helps make the learning stick. But it can leave people feeling frustrated.

The research
In a recent study, students were taught four kinds of mathematics problems. A control group learned one kind, then practiced that kind, then moved on. This is known as a “blocked” method.

An experimental group was taught each of the four kinds, then did “interleaved” practice – the questions could come from any of the four kinds of problems.

Performance during the interleaved practice sessions wasn’t smooth. Students struggled as they first had to identify which kind of problem it was and then figure out how to solve it.

But the day after practice, the experimental group had double the test scores of the control group.

Similar results have been found for interleaving in other areas, including:

  • Hitting baseballs. Batters who faced “blocks” – several fastballs or curve balls in a row – did better in batting practice. But those who got “interleaved” pitches – different types all mixed together – performed better in actual games.
  • Identifying paintings. Students who studied several painters’ styles at the same time took longer to learn them. But they were better able to identify a new painting than those who learned one painter at a time.
  • Calculating volumes. When college students were taught how to calculate the volumes of various solids, the interleaving group did three times better on tests – even though they did about 20% worse in practice.

Implications for trainers
The primary goal of practice, of course, is to help people master the material. Techniques that make practice harder, such as interleaving, get you there faster.

But practice also has a motivational component: You want people to feel a sense of accomplishment so that they stay engaged in the learning.

It’s a delicate balancing act, so you might want to include both types of practice.

For example, you might use blocked practice immediately after a lesson, supplemented by interleaved practice after several lessons have been completed.

Also, help learners understand that it’s a good thing for them to struggle during practice sessions. If practice is harder than the real game, they’ll win more of the real games.

Taylor, K, Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of
interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology,
Vol. 24, pp. 837-48.

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