Research School Network: Interleaving: the cure for misconceptions?


Interleaving: the cure for misconceptions?

by Research Schools Network
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Emma Taylor has been teaching science for 10 years and is currently at ARK King Solomon Academy.

Returning to work from maternity leave to teach an A‑level Biology class who were feeling the impact of remote learning and exam uncertainty, has made this a term like no other. Studying during a shifting educational landscape has proved an unexpected challenge for these young scientists. 

Emerging evidence from the UK Parliament indicates that disadvantaged students have had the greatest disruption to their education’, and there is a real threat that this disruption could further widen the attainment gap that already persists between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. 

So, what can I do in my classroom to close this gap, widened recently by a lack of access to technology and space to learn when most students spent many months studying at home? 

As a teacher, I have been driven to re-think how I teach, shifting the Year 13 focus from fast-paced lessons and exam technique to a greater focus on depth of understanding. I have found myself devoting more time to managing my students’ heightened anxiety levels so that these deserving students can still achieve the grades they need to make it into a top university. 

The EEF’s Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report has been my go-to resource, to help me reflect on the quality of the lessons I deliver, and to ensure I can support this unique group of students to become confident A‑level biologists, despite their disrupted first year. 

This has meant I’ve tried not to assume what students know and understand, and have checked and reviewed prior knowledge during lessons at every opportunity (as outlined in recommendation 4b). I have had to delve further into misconceptions that could have easily gone unchecked during the months of home learning, in order to prevent students building new knowledge onto an insecure foundation (recommendation 1c). 

But what prior knowledge should I revisit? Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve has long been at the forefront of our minds as teachers, recognising the importance of reviewing and re-teaching knowledge and concepts, in order to shift learning from short to long-term memory. But another education buzzword’ has gained further traction since the pandemic hit: interleaving. 

Interleaving is a learning strategy where students are exposed to different topics within the same learning episode. Research suggests that reviewing various blocks of learning improves long-term retention of content. However, others argue that this method of teaching doesn’t allow for depth of understanding, as students are continuously jumping around different ideas. There is also some debate about how quickly you should switch topics, and whether it’s best to do this during review or revision, rather than with new material.

I am inclined to think that too much switching between topics can be counterproductive. I want my students to have a depth of understanding that allows them to make sense of the world around them. That means reviewing the structure of biological molecules that contain Nitrogen at the beginning of a lesson on the Nitrogen Cycle, not asking them to regurgitate their patchy knowledge of the ELISA test, for example.

However, I can certainly see the value in interleaving’ previous topics and concepts that relate to the material we’re covering in a particular lesson. Learning is about making links to things you already know, and building on prior understanding. It’s therefore always important to revisit things we’ve previously learned. But this is particularly important now, when I’m unsure exactly what my students understood (or misunderstood) during lockdown.

If we want our students to build an accurate picture of the science they are learning, we must help them make links between knowledge and concepts, and draw out any misconceptions they might hold. If we switch around between unrelated topics, there’s a danger we’ll overload them cognitively, by asking them to do too many things within the precious time we do have with them. 

I have found that the best way to help them make important conceptual connections is to model my thinking, through the use of diagrams, model answers and unique applications. This allows me to show them the links I am able to make in my thinking about different aspects of the course. 

Will I finish the course with enough time to drill exam skills? I’m not sure. Are my students developing into confident biologists, who are able to apply a strong understanding of what they’ve learned to a range of applications? I certainly think so. As Spring approaches, and I watch them develop as young Scientists, I am assured this is the right approach to take.

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