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Learning Methods: Interleaving – A Way to Learn Faster and Better

There is an interesting article in TIME magazine – Practice, Made Perfect? – that examines the 10,000 hours of practice theory that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers. Although the case study was golf, the findings may have implications in many other fields.


The article in a nutshell:

On 10,000 Hours of Practice

  • Clocking the 10,000 hours is not as important as what you do with those hours. It’s not enough to just go through the motions of practicing. It must be deliberate, dedicated practice that is focussed on improvement.
  • 10,000 hours is simply a ball park figure. Don’t use it as a measure. The essential take-home message is that lots and lots of practice is required.

What is Interleaving?

It is essentially a method of practice or learning different skills at the same time. For instance, in baseball batting practice, instead of hitting 15 fastballs, then 15 curveballs, then 15 change-ups, practice hitting random pitches.

More Examples of Interleaving

  • Tennis players might practice forehands, backhands and volleys altogether.
  • For musicians, it could mean practising scales, arpeggios and chords all in the same session.
  • In Maths, it might involve working on assignments that require different mathematical techniques at the same time.

Interleaving differs to the traditional way of learning where we usually focus on one technique before moving on to another. Tennis players work on forehands before they move to a different stroke. Musicians practice scales before arpeggios. Math classes focus on one skill before teaching another.

How Effective is Interleaving?

It has been theorised that if teachers taught subjects in smaller, randomised chunks, students might gain a deeper understanding of the material. This seems to agree with an article I recall reading on study practices some time back where they recommended changing subjects during a study period rather than slogging through one subject at a time because your recall and learning potential is greater when you chop and change rather than focus only on one subject at a time.

Interleaving gives the brain a better workout because mixing tasks provides just enough stress to trigger the release of a hormone called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) in the hippocampus, the brain area central to memory and learning. CRF strengthens synapses. During blocked practice, by contrast, you’re not reloading your circuitry by trying different tasks, you’re under less stress, and your brain is bored and less engaged.”

In a study on interleaving:

  • Students who used interleaving performed 25% better on a test one day later.
  • When tested one month later, they performed 76% better.

So if you want to help your child learn faster and better, perhaps you should start incorporating the interleaving technique into his practice…

The Downside of Interleaving?

Since you have to work on more than one skill at a time, interleaving can feel a lot harder than regular methods of learning. Then again, forcing the mind to work harder is likely the reason why this method is more effective.

More about Interleaving

If this article has caught your attention, take a look at the following articles and studies:

More about Studying

On studying – these articles provide study techniques that improve learning and recall:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Learning Methods: Interleaving – A Way to Learn Faster and Better

  1. Thanks Shen-Li. This concept of interleaving is new to me. I’ve heard of Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” and wonder how the chopping and changing fits with Tony Schwartz’s “Power of Full Engagement” approach to working in focused, uninterrupted chunks of time (where multi-tasking is scheduled, and working on a topic solidly is advocated over changing subject matters around too much). I guess the bridge between the 2 concepts of “interleaving” and “focused blocks of time” rests in keeping it to one topic at a time, but maybe appending a number of subjects sequentially within each block of work time. That would give the best of both worlds. Thanks again – has provided definite food for thought! J


    1. Hi J – have not heard of “Power of Full Engagement”. Must check it out…

      Actually, you raised a good point. There was also a reference that changing subjects too frequently is not good either. It’s one of those U curves where you have to find the right balance for peak performance. Too little or too much and your performance declines.


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