Small Teaching Tip[1] – Every Exam Must Be Cumulative

. . . if you want students to retain content or skills beyond course end, insists Jim Lang. The tactic is called “interleaving,” which he defines in two parts: “(a) spacing out learning sessions over time; and (b) mixing up your practice of skills you are seeking to develop.” This is not the first time I’ve blogged about interleaving. Nevertheless, incorporating interleaved practice easily into our lessons may take a little more unpacking.

I’ll begin with an example from my childhood. I learned to shoot a jump shot by attempting the same shot over and over. Perhaps you did the same: take a short dribble to a corner of the key, jump, and shoot. Michael Jordan repeatedly terrorized the Cleveland Cavs, Detroit Pistons, and the Utah Jazz with this shot. Over and over and over. Same place, same form. Then, practice the same shot on the baseline. This learning method isn’t futile and certainly kept me out of my parents’ hair for hours on Saturdays. What I didn’t realize, however, is that more learning took place in pick-up games.

My strategy for learning a jumper is what Lang calls “blocked practice”: each set of questions or problems are solved similarly before moving on to another block of problems to learn a different skill. Interleaved practice differs from blocked practice by appearing more like a “shoot around”: start with a jumper about 15′ out, then do a layup, which is then followed by a three-point attempt before coming back to try the 15′ jump shot again. You could even add some sort of distraction such as a person guarding you while you shoot. I used a trash can with an upside down broom sticking out of it. The learning feels more like scrimmaging, truer to what you’ll experience on the court where you’ll need to lose yourself in the moment: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” Be ready at all times from any point on the court.

Interleaved learning—whether it be vocabulary words, key terms, or a jump shot—is more effective than blocked learning at on-demand retention by forcing us to move short-term memory to long-term. Below are a couple of ways to employ interleaving that Lang lists on page 83:

  1. Reserve a small part of your major exams for questions or problems that require students to draw on older course content
  2. Open or close each class session with small opportunities for students to retrieve older knowledge, to practice skills developed earlier in the course, or to apply old knowledge or skills to new contexts
  3. Create weekly mini review sessions in which students spend the final 15 minutes of the class session of the week applying that week’s content to some new question or problem
  4. Use quiz and exam questions that require students to connect new material to older material or to revise their understanding of previous content in light of newly learned material
  5. In blended or online courses, stagger deadlines and quiz dates to ensure that students benefit from the power of spaced learning

Hopefully, these suggestions show you how you’re already incorporating interleaved practice while also giving you new ideas.The gist of his solution is employing learning exercises that require students to pull old information into new contexts. There’s no need for systemically revamping your teaching. To see what this can look like using the Quizzes tool in OAKS, watch Testing Effect Tutorial.

[1] Between now and May 14, we are highlighting Jim Lang’s book Small Teaching Tips: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. He is the keynote speaker at this year’s TLTCon May 14-15 here at the College of Charleston. You can register for this event beginning next Monday (9 March). On Tuesday, 10 March, we will be holding a registration event, at which point you can also get a free copy of the Lang’s book.

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