Interleaved Learning Works Easily in OAKS

There’s lots of evidence demonstrating that combined efforts are stronger efforts. Exercise enthusiasts know that they can lift more with barbells than with dumbbells; fishing experts know that braided lines are stronger than mono lines even when 10% of a braided line abrades; and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes instructs us that “One may be overpowered, but two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” Learning experts are now telling us that weaving old information in with new information is also valuable for long-term memory retention.


It’s not the first time I’m talking about interleaved learning. I’m thinking about it again because I’ve found that OAKS makes interleaved learning pretty easy. There are several simple steps:

  1. Create quiz questions in the Question Library (QL)
  2. Create quizzes using sections from the QL
  3. Add quiz questions from past sections into current quizzes

It’s not hard and the payoff is pretty great. Students learn better when prompted to re-learn past, factual information.

So, here are some of the practices that I think work best in OAKS for interleaved learning.


Communicate the interleaving process. Make sure that students understand how the process works: re-learning information is how you get facts—reproducible information—to stick. In other words, you are having them revisit information that they may have forgotten because re-learning forgotten information is a key step in moving information from short-term to long-term memory.


Give students an unlimited number of attempts. This step is vital. You don’t want students to cheat? Let them know that they have an unlimited number of attempts to get their quiz grades up. This step allows students to lean into the process of testing to learn in a way very similar to play a video game level over and over and over. They understand the value of facts, that facts can only be memorized, and that re-testing is a way to learn information in the ultimate sense. Give them the space to get facts wrong so that they can get them correct on the next round.


Preach that learning is hard work. In nearly every area of life, we—and I mean every breathing human—wants to know that there’s a second chance if we don’t get things right the first time. We understand the value of learning from our mistakes when it comes to shooting a three-pointer, throwing a flick in ultimate Frisbee, getting a R&R on a journal article we’ve submitted (instead of a flat-out rejection), or baking those cinnamon rolls your mom always made but never really got to writing down the recipe. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” applies to 99% of life’s circumstances. I’m hard-pressed to think of an instance where there are no re-dos outside of the classroom. Just a general question: if the way that we deem work “successful” doesn’t exist outside the classroom walls or OAKS testing environment, what are we doing again? (Am I the only person who didn’t know who William Edward Hickson was?)


Know what the factual information is prepping students to create. This is Backward Design 101. Few people enjoy learning information from which they cannot readily see the final goal. Don’t do it to students. I’ve found that students will readily step up to the testing to learn process when they know that the quizzes will prepare them to accomplish some clearly identified task (test, project, skill). In my Classical Myth course, most students take the level 1 quizzes five or six times, but one student tested herself on one set of information seventeen (17) times. They know the information prepares them for a second quiz level as well as for an exam on which it will be nearly impossible to cheat.


Interleaving is a very process-oriented experience. You have to be comfortable with the mind’s propensity to forget yet trust in its ability to store a nearly unlimited amount of data. You have to understand there’s no easy way to learn though there are better ways. And you must know the educational purpose. And we, as educators, need to be comfortable with the fact that these life principles are valuable classroom practices.

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