Students work on a problem set

Linking ideas and concepts in class


Written by Dr. Precious Boyle with Adan Garcia

Linking ideas and concepts in class

This is the third installment in a series of pieces from Leading Educators and the Learning Agency about opportunities to use strategies from the science of learning in diverse contexts to boost students’ learning.  There are often barriers to bringing research back to the classroom where it can benefit students most, so this series shares learnings from collaborating with real educators to make the science of learning work for them and the students they serve.


“These kids aren’t quiet, so I usually know that they get it when they yell out, ‘I get it!’”, shares Ms. Shannon Payette, a veteran teacher of 20 years.  “The minute that a child can explain to me why this is working, then that means I have done my job.”

Teachers strive for these kinds of moments daily, which is why many constantly look for new ways to teach important concepts. For fundamental concepts to stick, teachers have to prompt students to continually practice. Researchers from the Learning Agency came to Ms. Payette and fellow teacher Ms. Kim Kelly at Sky View Middle School in Leominster, Massachusetts with interleaving as a strategy for making that practice possible.

“Interleaving is basically just mixing things up,” explains Dr. Megan Sumeracki.  Compared to blocking, where many of the same type of problem are grouped together, interleaving mixes up different concepts and types of problems on the same page, so students have to figure out which skills to apply when.

Ms. Kelly shares, “We typically learn the rules: that the same sign, you add them.  Different signs, you subtract them. But now, give them multiplication rules, and [students] confuse the rules.  So, building that conceptual knowledge allows them to own the rules. They don’t have to memorize them. They can always derive them.”

After a conversation about interleaving, both teachers recognized opportunities to use it more in their classrooms.  Dr. Sumeracki recommended jumbling problems on homework assignments and tests so students could better understand why they use a particular math skill to solve a problem.  This allows for constant review of information during later tasks and avoids cramming before big exams.

Applying interleaving in the classroom came with some challenges.  Ms. Kelly felt overwhelmed by the need to redesign a lot of her resources, but starting with homework helped her build some momentum.  During instructional time, she opted to switch between topics more frequently rather than focusing on mixing up problem types even if it meant giving fewer questions.

Ms. Kelly shares, “I can see students stopping and thinking, and they’re not, with their calculator, just typing numbers in.  I can see them pausing. Their brain had to shift from this topic, back to some old material, and then back to the new topic.”

Ms. Payette was similarly impressed with how her students responded to a practice standardized test with interleaved questions.  She shares, “I have a kid who has struggled–did not meet expectations for math at all on his last year MCAS. He got all six out of six correct on his own, no help from anyone at home.  No one got below three out of six.”


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