Learning Hacks: How Should I Study Across Topics?

The Hack

Frequently switch up what you study rather than focusing on the same topic

The Story

student studying at a deskMany students group their studying by topic within a course. This means that they will study Chapter 2 material first before they move on to study Chapter 3 material. Once they are finished with those, they finally move on to Chapter 4 material, and so on. This is called blocking, or taking all of the things you need to study and chopping it into blocks based on chapter or unit. It makes a lot of sense to study this way, but is it the most effective way to study? Spoiler alert, the answer is no! Interleaving is a more effective way to study. Interleaving is splitting your study topics into smaller chunks, and then moving frequently between study topics rather than studying the same material for hours at a time.

Let’s say you have three study topics: A, B, and C.  Here’s how each of these techniques would look:

  • Blocking Practice (not as good): AAABBBCCC
  • Interleaved Practice (much better): ABCABCABC

The Research

Rohrer et al. and Taylor investigated the effects of interleaved practice when compared with blocked practice. They found that interleaving was a significantly more effective learning strategy and helped students learn more in the same amount of time. Interestingly, students who implemented interleaving practice felt like they were learning less, but ended up doing much better than students who felt like they were learning more with blocking practice. Here are some practical tips for implementing interleaving practice.

  1. Switch up what you study. Interleaving is studying one topic for a relatively short period of time, then switching to a different topic. You could also interleave what you study by mixing up your flashcards from different chapters or courses into the same study set.
  2. Keep at it even if it seems hard. When students implement interleaving, research shows that students feel like they are learning less. However, these students end up retaining information better and scoring higher on exams than students who did not implement interleaving. So even if it is hard, realize you are studying in a more effective way.

The Source

Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R. F., & Stershic, S. (2015). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 900.