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Learning through interleaving

Having been in and out of academy for the last, scary number, 16 years, both as a student and lecturer, I have a long list of convictions on what constitutes good learning practice. These have formed, without exception, as a result of frontal clashes with the common-sense notions of good learning practice in higher education. Sitting in class and listening to a lecturer, working in groups, taking notes and /or memorizing lecture notes, passing exams (my favorite) – the list is familiar to everyone with a degree or the aspirations to get one. Bottom line is that the pernicious notions that learning happens in organized time-blocks, and that the best learning practices manifest themselves through instant-recall have contributed tremendously towards the boxed-content assembly line we call higher education. What we produce is students capable of remembering the answer to a question, who excel at obediently taking exams.

There is an alternative to learning though, to my knowledge first charted by Vygotsky, who used the metaphor of scaffolding to describe it. I try and shape my subjects in accordance with this, constructivist, approach whereby the learning process happens dynamically, in an open location (that is, the students decides where), and is assessed through the regular, dynamic production of content, with the separate assessments integrated into a higher-order whole. For example, students produce weekly content consisting of research, reflection, and mini fact-finding missions; they read and comment on each-other’s content; they may use the annotated sources from their fact-finding missions as building blocks towards a group project, or a longer research and reflection piece; they may use that piece to look back and reflect on the issues they identified, etc. The intention is to create a modular, scaffolding-like platform of content production and assessment which can be tailored towards particular topics, problems, and end-tasks.

I have been looking for a new metaphor to describe this approach, and today found it in the work of Robert Bjork from the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, who coins the term ‘interleaving’ to describe the effect of engaging with a topic or a problem on several different levels of intensity simultaneously. The problem is how to design subject materials relying on constant feedback and reflection, so as to maximize the recall function of memory and the relaitonality of knowledge.

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