BLOG PAGE: A View from the Bridge
By Mr. Clayton
By Mr. Clayton
As some parents will be all too aware we are now in the midst of exam season for year 11s and 13s. The IGCSE and IB exam kicked off this week and many of our students are studying hard and facing the nightmare of the exam room. Over the years since their inception, exams haven’t changed much. In fact I would argue not at all for basically 200 years. There are some moves afoot in some countries around the world to revolutionise them, but mass change appears to be some way off. Over the years too, advice given hasn’t changed a lot and hasn’t really reflected new findings in neuro-science. Students through the ages have been exhorted to work in quiet areas, copy notes, highlight important bits, get plenty of exercise, sleep and eat well and generally plan for every eventuality. Some of that advice remains good. Many of us will have our tried and trusted formulae for exam success which to a greater or lesser extent, we have passed on to our wide eyed progeny.
Well it appears that there may be a new way to memorise, understand or learn a new skill. The accepted orthodoxy for years has been like this. When we try to fully understand something, most of us tend to review the basics, complete a few related practice exercises until we reach an acceptable level, then move on. This is called blocked or mass practice. This allows us to concentrate on one topic or skill area which is then repeated and practiced until we then move onto another area to repeat the process. A different approach is called interleaving.
If you wanted to learn skills 1, 2 and 3, then learnt in a block practice mode, it would look like this, 111-222-333. To learn using interleaving it might look like this 123-123-123. It seems that in order for deep learning to take place this approach wins out. As with many new ideas in neuroscience it may appear at first counter-intuitive. The research is quite extensive and here is one which had interesting results. Students were split into two groups, one taught in an interleaved way and one through massed practice. They were being taught how to calculate the volumes of 4 different geometric solids. The interleaved group were taught all four ways at once. The massed group were taught one by one. What happened was this. When they did the practice tests as they went along the massed practice group performed 29% better. However one week after all the teaching and the practice tests the interleaved group performed 43% higher than the massed practice group.
Why is this the case? It may be the ‘illusion of knowing’ giving us a false sense of security through studying in blocks, maybe interleaving creates enough anxiety in the learner that things are unpredictable and so the learners are much more careful and attentive to what they are learning. Maybe it’s the variety that works and forces the brain to access new skills in a real and powerful way.
Variety can work at a physical level too. Most advice given to students on how to revise suggest they find a secluded convenient space to study, but some research suggests that studying the same material in two different rooms or contexts, rather than twice in the same room, leads to increased recall of that material. Instinctively, we believe that getting students to practise in the same conditions as the exams, same length of paper, same room, and same look of the papers might not be the most effective preparation. All this means that variety is key. The brain loves variety, gets bored quickly and needs things that constantly challenge it.