The Counterintuitive Nature of Effective Learning Strategies

by Justin Skycak on

Effective learning strategies sometimes go against our human instincts about conversation.

Interleaving and spaced repetition help students maximize their learning speed and retention. However, when using these strategies while teaching, they can feel counterintuitive.

Why? Because they go against our human instincts about conversations.

During a conversation, people generally want to focus on a single thought, explore it to its fullest extent, and completely finish the thought before moving on to other things. We converse depth-first.

But interleaving and spaced repetition are about stopping the flow of thought, doing other things for a while, and then coming back to remember the flow of thought just before you’ve forgotten it. Breadth-first, not depth-first.

Granted, when creating content for a course, it’s easiest to proceed in the form of a story and “close the loop” each time before moving on and opening another loop. That’s how to create good content, but it’s not how the content should be presented.

It’s natural to think that teaching should mirror content creation, but in reality, they should be very different.

The breadth-first nature of interleaving and spaced repetition gives rise to a handful of other interesting consequences.

For instance, you need to create (or, at the very least, outline) most of your course’s content prior to teaching any of it.

Likewise, you end up covering topics in an unconventional yet highly efficient manner – for instance, in a calculus course, teaching many tests for convergence before teaching integration.