One of my favorite questions to ask my history students is, "Have you seen or heard of this happening before?" They typically respond with a resounding, "Yes!" The opportunity to make connections to learned material and share their prior knowledge begins. Showing students how a previously learned concept reveals itself multiple times throughout history is remarkably effective at helping them to retain that concept. It also includes them in the teaching and learning process.
It's Been a Long Road
As a teacher of a variety of subjects over the years, I have observed and implemented multiple teaching strategies. There are those that resonate with the students and help promote their learning, and there are those which, unfortunately, crash and burn. Additionally, there are those strategies that evolve based on the experience of being in the classroom and witnessing first hand what works within a specific teaching style. These strategies are typically based on outstanding results from students and not necessarily part of an educator's professional development. They are a rewarding acknowledgment of effective teaching.
One of the strategies that was effective for my teaching style was to ask students to retrieve information that they previously learned and incorporate it or connect it to their present learning. This idea wasn't a strategy that I had been told to implement. It just made sense for my classes. Occasionally, I would worry that it would take time away from learning new material, but it seemed like it needed to be done to secure overarching concepts. Fortunately, this strategy turned out to be a research-based approach to helping students keep information in long-term memory.
In Over My Head
Far Hills Country Day School has partnered with the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) over the last two years. Part of this collaboration has seen multiple cohorts of teachers attend their annual Science of Teaching Academy. This professional development experience allows teachers to learn about research in the field of Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, and Education, commonly referred to as Mind, Brain, & Education (MBE). Through this professional development opportunity, teachers are learning powerful strategies to ensure optimal student success and help bridge the achievement gap. The focus is on using research-based information to guide teaching practices. A fundamental part of this experience is being able to listen to experts in these fields.
During my time at the CTTL, I learned about the overarching concepts of interleaving and the spacing effect. When I first heard the terms "interleaving" and "spacing," I thought I was in over my head.
Interleaving is the intentional process of consistently revisiting learned material throughout new lessons to reinforce retention and to make connections to current learning. For example, rather than learning about one topic and then moving onto another, we integrate the themes with the point being that students will touch the material in regular and short bursts.
The concept of spacing refers to providing opportunities in the lessons and studying time to review previously learned concepts at a reasonable pace, rather than a mass cram of information.
I soon discovered that these were instructional strategies that I had been utilizing all along. Research has shown an increase in student performance when using these strategies. It makes sense, but I wondered if it was realistic to have enough time to go back and reintroduce previous concepts and include them in assessments. The answer is absolutely. This aids long-term memory consolidation and leads to enduring learning, moving between topics that are continually building on each other.
Research into Action
There are a variety of ways to incorporate interleaving and spacing into teaching practices, no matter the topic. In my Grade 5 Ancient Civilizations class, students learn how humans evolve from nomadic hunter-gatherers to citizens of civilizations. At the beginning of the year, students learn the essential elements that create a civilization. With this understanding, they are then prepared to understand the complexities of specific civilizations they will learn about throughout the year. They can explain the necessity of farming to establish a village; once there is a surplus of food, individuals can select a job they prefer and barter or trade for food, which ultimately leads to job selection and business opportunities. This then leads to trade and a stronger economy, which promotes the expansion of an empire. These concepts and terms repeat themselves in the lessons of each civilization we study. Students start the year with little concept of the complexities of human organizations. By the end of the year, students grasp the interrelated elements of a culture, leading to a deeper understanding of the role of farming, trade, and an economy. Students become confident using these terms in a myriad of assessment situations with successful results.
This year I made a concentrated effort to incorporate interleaving into my class. As the Ancient Civilization class began a new lesson, I decided to include time for retrieval of information from a previous lesson about how a civilization developed. I explained the interleaving process to students so that they would have an awareness and vested interest in their success. Once the explanation was complete, I told the students we would discuss the development of a civilization.
As a response, the students sat quietly in their seats and stared at me, ready to learn. I had to take a step back. They had no intention of retrieving prior knowledge. They were prepared and willing to learn this information all over again. I couldn't get over it. They had been successful on the assessments and projects of this previous material. It was incredible that they thought I was going to start all over again. It made me wonder how many times students have sat through learning material they had already been taught at some point. I empathized with them and understood that some necessary strategies were about to be implemented.
I quickly realized how genuinely useful interleaving and spacing were going to be at this point. Asking students to retrieve prior information took some warming up and reminders to spark them thinking about the previous topic. I decided to put them in small groups with the hope that they would help each other to use resources and memory for retrieval. It was a huge success. Each group had a secretary that recorded their information, and once they started remembering what they learned, they were excited and enthusiastic to share. When I asked the students what the benefit of interleaving was, one responded, "It helps to stretch your brain out. Even if you don't think you know it, you find out you do." Another student responded, "Some people don't have a long-lasting memory. They forget things easily, so it could be a reminder." This was a pivotal moment in student learning and metacognition.
Now the trick was to incorporate and make connections to the new material. It was a relatively smooth process. The students readily applied the concepts of developing a civilization to the new one we were studying. Not only did it bring back discussions on the immediate topic, but also the students made connections to other aspects of the previously studied ancient civilization material. They developed confidence in demonstrating the connections they were making.
According to MBE literature, timing plays a vital role in securing information in long-term memory. Research shows that just at the time when the student begins to forget the information, it is the critical time to interleave it back into the lesson for them to review and lock into long-term memory.
One of the students identified that the interleaving served that purpose for him. He explained that interleaving "is helpful because right when you are starting to forget things, it brings it right back into your mind again."
So my students spent a class reviewing and discussing the information and then presented it briefly the next day. This may have been more time than I planned, but the benefits for and the enthusiasm of the students were exceptional. It was a powerful teaching moment.
It's All About Timing
When discussing the strategy of spacing in teaching, it is important to keep in mind that students need ample time to prepare for assessments. When ensuring preparedness, a time crunch and cram session are going to create stress with little retention. Spacing out studying is a critical practice that teachers fundamentally know. It is the students who need an understanding of the benefits of spacing to achieve their best results. As mentioned earlier, spacing in learning refers to making sure there is ample time for students to study and review the material a few times before an assessment or presentation. Research documents that a student will have more success when spacing their review rather than doing it all at once. According to retrievalpractice.org, "Critically, both approaches involve the same amount of time learning but differ in how that time is scheduled. Simply spacing learning opportunities across multiple days leads to much higher achievement than studying the same amount of information all in one session."
When students use retrieval to obtain the information that has been spaced over a few study sessions, it goes into their long-term memory.
Teachers may provide students with an assessment or project date well in advance, but how they get the student to space their preparation is a perpetual challenge. By providing opportunities in class to retrieve information over a spaced period of time, teachers will help their students to develop a useful lifelong skill for putting information in long-term memory. Ultimately, the goal is to have the students plan for spaced retrieval on their own. When I asked my students how many of them begin to study a week before an assessment, three out of 17 raised their hands. One of the three students said, "I like how you explain it and give us a week to study, so we have enough time." She is a planner who already understands the benefits of spacing. Modeling this behavior and using spacing as part of your teaching are the most effective ways to help students ensure success and peace of mind.
It is a natural process to include interleaving and spacing when teaching a concept. Many teachers may find that they consistently reference previously taught material to latch onto an idea that students already understand. It makes sense to make a connection. Helping students to use the best research-based strategies to learn the material deeply and retain it over time is essential. The repeated successes of interleaving and spacing are motivators to keep these practices at the forefront of teaching.
Meet the Author
Grade 5 Teacher