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Spaced Practice and Interleaving: How Forgetting Helps You Learn

Say you do math problems for an hour to study for your exams. You, a diligent student, do this on a Monday, even though the exam isn’t until Friday. But then, when the exam rolls around, you find yourself blanking on concepts you thought you really knew. In cases like these, you had what’s called an “illusion of knowledge.” The remedy for that is a combination of spaced practice and the interleaving study method.

Read on for:

  • what exactly we mean by an “illusion of knowledge”
  • the definitions of spaced practice and interleaving
  • the science behind them
  • how to use these two information integration methods to study for the same amount of time, but retain more information

If you really want to do well on exams that require you to remember massive chunks of information – like SAT, ACT, and AP exams – these two study methods will help you store all the knowledge you need for exam day.

Related: Not sure whether to take the SAT, ACT, or both? Read this.

"The Illusion of Learning": Is studying in large chunks really effective?

Many students set aside huge blocks of time to focus on specific subjects.

Some students also prefer to study for an exam later (or they have procrastinated and are officially in the cramming stage of studying.)

And it sounds sort of reasonable to dedicate huge chunks of time to studying right before an exam – the information will be fresh, right?

But research on information retention and retrieval says otherwise.

When you study in large chunks of time, otherwise known as block studying, you encounter the same kind of information repeatedly in a short span of time, so it easily becomes familiar.

Because it becomes familiar so quickly, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to retrieve it. Information just sits in your short-term memory, and doesn’t move over to your long-term memory.

So when you encounter questions on the actual exam, you can’t pull information as easily, even if you were just looking at material moments ago.

This is especially true when it comes to things like Algebra or Calculus, where problems look similar, but require different methods to get the correct solution. You might remember the way to solve a problem when you know what kind of problem it is. But on the SAT or an AP exam, you won’t be told exactly what method you need to solve the problem. Different processes get jumbled in your short-term memory, and it’s hard to parse out what exactly you need to get an answer.

Related: You will face Algebra, Data Analysis, and more on the SAT and ACT. If Math isn’t your strong suit, get tutoring that caters to your learning style.

What is spaced practice? Why is it effective?

Text: Spaced practice vs. blocked studying.

Spaced practice is a learning method that takes the chunk of time you would spend learning a concept and spreads it out into shorter sessions over time.

For example, say you have a geometry test coming up.

Instead of spending four hours studying the night before you have to take it, you would study for an hour a day, over the span of four days.

You spend the same total amount of time studying. But when you space out your studying, your brain has to work harder each day to retrieve information on how to solve problems.

It’s harder to retrieve the information, so it seems like you’re not learning as much or as efficiently as when you study in one block of time.

But by the third or fourth day, you’ll find that it’s easier to pull information without having to review notes.

That’s because information is transferred to long-term memory after so much work to recall it over time.

It’s like the learning equivalent of running a sprint versus a marathon. You might run faster in a single sprint. But when you practice running for a marathon over a span of time, your body is more acclimated to movement.

On race day, it’s easier to keep up your stamina.

The same principle applies to spaced practice. 

What is interleaving? How do you use it?

Interleaving is the practice of mixing up multiple subjects while studying to improve information retention.

Essentially, you study one concept for a set amount of time, then move to another one, and another, and another – all in a random order.

Later on, you’ll land on that original subject and work on practice questions again.

Since you “leave” the subject, then come back to it, your brain has to work harder to remember the type of question you encounter, as well as how to solve it.

An Example Of Interleaving in Practice

Say you’re studying for the SAT Math section, which tests several mathematical concepts that are sometimes related, and sometimes not.

Instead of concentrating on the “Heart of Algebra” section until you can do every type of problem right, you would do practice questions from this section for a set amount of time. Let’s say you’re working on solving equations.

Then, you switch randomly to another section, like the “Passport to Advanced Math” section. You work on proportions problems.

After a set amount of time working on Data Analysis problems, you move back to Algebra problems. But instead of solving equations, you’re writing inequalities.

Eventually, you land on solving equations again. Since you just worked on completely different types of problems, you have to remember not only how to solve a problem, but what the question in front of you is actually asking.

In block studying, you know exactly what the question is asking, since you’re studying a particular unit.

But the test won’t necessarily tell you which method to use for every question, or even what the question is asking.

With interleaving, you don’t see questions in the same format over and over. You have to learn to recognize different problem formats, which will really help you identify what exactly a question is asking.

In something like Math, understanding the meaning of a question is half the battle.

With interleaving, you’ll be more prepared for that battle.

Related: Are we teaching Math the right way?

How to Combine Interleaving and Spaced Practice

Interleaving is sort of spacing out concepts all on it’s on, since you “leave” concepts and then come back to them.

But to really transfer information over to your long-term memory, space out your interleaving studying over several days.

Then, retrieving information will be even more of a challenge, with an even greater payoff.

A Few Caveats Concerning this Mixed Method of Studying

To effectively use interleaving and spaced practice, you should:

  • plan far in advance
  • stick to designated study blocks (no getting too deep into any one subject at a time)
  • have multiple topics or subjects to study (which should be easy, considering all the topics on exams you can take to improve your college applications)
  • use active studying practices like working through example problems, quizzing yourself on concepts, or working with a classmate or tutor over time
  • be a little more flexible, since you’re bouncing around to different topics and concepts so often

It’s hard to get into the habit of using this mixed method study practice. It’s definitely not as “easy” as block studying, since your brain doesn’t get “comfortable” with information as quickly.

But it’s really worth it, especially with exams that cover so many different concepts at once.

Use your time wisely.

Study for the same total amount of time.

But retain more information by simply changing up how often you “leave” studying and then return to it.

Keep an open mind, and keep in mind how effective this more “difficult” method of studying is.

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