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The Kaneb Center fully encourages thinking of your class sessions and course schedules in terms of digestible blocks that employ diverse engaged learning exercises and techniques and are transparently connected to course goals. However, in practice it is sometimes difficult to ensure that each separate block of content throughout the semester connects not only to course goals but also directly to each other. In his 2016 book, Small Teaching, James Lang uses the term interleaving to demonstrate how one might best put these smaller chunks of information disseminated throughout the semester in constant conversation with one another so that students experience a consistent flow of information and better understand how each piece of the class fits together.

Interleaving is most easily understandable in the context of courses or situations that require memorization of a large body of knowledge.  Lang successfully introduces the concept of interleaving through a personal anecdote about learning Spanish. He underscores that he did not truly start learning Spanish until he abandoned the linear model of trudging forward toward more advanced vocabulary terms and grammatical concepts and replaced it with a method that combined this forward progression with consistent review of older material. Doing so meant that he moved much more slowly through new material but ensured that he retained the information he was learning. Lang defines such a learning method as interleaved learning and suggests that implementing this mixture of review based and new concept based learning will dramatically increase student retention of material.

Since interleaving necessitates constant reinforcement , there may be some anxiety about it taking time away from learning new content. That said, more complex ideas or information are not necessarily valuable if it is not properly understood.  Many of us are guilty of trying to cover as much new material as possible, sometimes at the expense of remembering to provide proper context. Perhaps we are already implementing best practices such as previewing material at the beginning of class, using different teaching methods throughout class-time, and spending time on a direct review of class material. But do we spend enough time reinforcing previously-taught material in later class periods, or do we just expect students to have a handle on it thanks to our excellent scaffolding of the material when we taught it? Lang argues that “If you want them to learn content or skills that stretch across the entire semester, and even beyond the confines of your course, interleave” (56). Retention is increased because students are able to directly make connections between each part of the course. If, per Lang, we increase the scaffolding to include frequent review of older material, we might have to spend less time on each individual concept because students will be able to activate their prior knowledge and directly apply it to new information and ideas.

Interleaving can even work in a course that is not linearly constructed, such as a humanities class that might focus on process more than product and may not necessarily require a direct progression of ideas in the same way a math or science course might. In a more process based class, one may revisit frameworks for thinking about issues or specific discussions that uncovered faulty assumptions about course material. I normally frame my courses with a chapter from Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress that develops a theory of performative and transgressive pedagogy that emphasizes student engagement and encourages students to think more deeply about their agency in the classroom. When reading future texts, we continually return to an interpretation of Hooks’ work that functions as a lens through which to contextualize our conversations and interactions and therefore leverage student participation. The result is that students feel more involved in the work as they are continually encountering Hooks’ pedagogy as a frame for interpreting and interacting with texts and one another. As I hope my experience demonstrates, interleaving does not just benefit information consumption but also “mastery of complex skills like writing, speaking, and problemsolving”, as students are asked to make connections across units of the course and synthesize their thoughts throughout the semester (56).

For those of you who would like to hear Lang speak in person, please check the Kaneb Center website or join our mailing list for updates on his upcoming (rescheduled) appearance this spring at Notre Dame.

Further Reading:

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

Lang, James. Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

James Lang’s Blog

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