The interleaving method: how to efficiently pick up new skills quickly

In a constantly changing world, one of the best ways to thrive and become indispensable is to pick up relevant skills as you grow.

As we choose to upgrade ourselves, learning how to learn becomes even more important. Learning efficiently can help us get more out of our time and still get stuff done to achieve work and career goals.

Acquiring new skills can take time but how we practice has a profound effect on knowledge comprehension, recall, and retention.

While everyone learns differently, a few proven methods including blocking, spaced repetition, the Feynman technique — learning by teaching, experiential learning, and repeated exposure can help us learn faster.

However, another method that promises improved results.

Enter “interleaving,” a surprisingly effective technique to accelerate learning

Whereas blocking involves practicing one skill at a time, the interleaving method involves learning or practicing two or more related concepts or skills at a time, instead of focusing exclusively on one concept or skill at a time.

“Essentially interleaving is switching between topics in one session, going over ideas in a different order in each session and making links and contrasts between the ideas,” says Rebecca Nobes, Chartered Teacher and Council Member of the Chartered College of Teaching.

It works great in combination with spaced repetition, one of the most important techniques for long-term retention of knowledge.

For many people learning or practicing multiple skills would normally form this pattern — AABBCC. An interleaved practice on the other hand would form this pattern — ABCABC.

For example, if you are learning a new language, instead of dedicating an hour or a long session on improving your vocabulary, you could mix it up by spending 30 minutes on vocabulary and the next 30 minutes practicing your pronunciation and then circling back to vocabulary.

Marianne Stenger, a writer at InformED, an Open Colleges blog explains:

“By reviewing both old and new materials in the same study session and returning to them repeatedly, you’ll be able to space out your learning more effectively and will be far more likely to recall that information weeks, months, or even years later.”

It’s a simple way to work with your brain instead of against it to remember better and retain more of what you learn. Studies show that interleaving strengthens memory associations.

According to a growing body of research, “interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, including sports and category learning,” writes Steven C. Pan, Ph.D., a learning scientist in the fields of cognition and education.

“New research in schools finds that interleaving produces dramatic and long-lasting benefits for an essential skill: math. Not only does this finding have the potential to transform how math is taught, but it may also change how people learn more generally.”

Interleaving works because it leverages the brain’s natural ability to recognize similar patterns and still spot the differences within them.

It also ensures that the practice of any particular skill is distributed, or spaced — which typically improves retention because the brain has enough time to store and retrieve information at specific intervals.

In an experiment on the effects of interleaved practice, researchers Kenneth Martin Taylor, Doug Rohrer found out that students using the “blocked” method received an average score of 42% on a test given 30 days after the end of the learning sessions, whilst those using the “interleaved” technique recorded an average score of 74%.

Interleaving makes sense because the brain cannot effectively store and recall lots of information in a short period of time.

Instead of consecutively learning the same things every day, you give yourself time to revisit what you are learning by focusing on something else, ie any two opportunities to practice the same task are not consecutive.

Interleaving not only helps you learn multiple skills fast, but it can also help you connect different ideas from various disciplines whilst you build strong pathways in your brain. Interleaving works better for related topics.
For efficient learning, avoid interleaving topics that are too different. Interleaving programming with philosophy lessons could end up being more confusing than helpful — the practice might end up hindering your learning, instead of facilitating it.

Interleaving can take time before you see results. It may slow your learning process and performance in the short-term, though it will generally lead to better outcomes in the long-term.

Your initial results may not be encouraging because it’s a new technique and your brain may take time to get used to it. But once it does, the results will change how you learn for good. You can also use it in conjunction with other effective learning techniques that work better for you.

This article originally appeared on Medium.