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Why an 'interleaving' curriculum could improve knowledge retention

This English teacher explains how she redesigned her department's curriculum based on the interleaving method, in the hope of increasing the amount of information committed to students' long-term memories

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This English teacher explains how she redesigned her department's curriculum based on the interleaving method, in the hope of increasing the amount of information committed to students' long-term memories

It’s an age-old problem. You meet your best mate’s partner for the first time and are introduced to them in the knowledge that they’re going to be an important figure in your friend’s life. Yet, the second time you meet them, you can barely remember their name, let alone where they work, what car they drive or how many cats their mother has. The information simply didn’t "stick".

This could be down to Hermann Ebbinghaus’ theory of the "forgetting curve". This is the hypothesises that if we do not revisit learned information, then, over time, the likelihood of us remembering that information will be drastically reduced.

It’s not hard to see the connection to teaching here. I have personally lost count of all the times that I have taught a unit in September, only to find that students cannot remember key information later on – no matter how well it was initially taught.

This problem with memory is undoubtedly something that leaders need to consider when planning curricula, especially as the current GCSE model requires students to retain information over a two- (or sometimes three-) year period.

What is interleaving?

One method that can be used to improve the chances of committing learning to long-term memory is "interleaving". This replaces the traditional method of block learning, where students cover one topic at a time.

Instead, an interleaved curriculum works on the basis that different topics are woven together, switched between and revisited at intervals throughout the year. Progress may seem slower than with block learning, but long-term retention of information should be improved through regular recall.

Inspired by Rebecca Foster’s sessions about interleaving at ResearchEd Rugby last year, I have altered my department’s schemes of work for Year 7 and 8 to more closely resemble this model.

In each unit, students cover and revisit a range of reading, writing and speaking and listening skills. Our schemes are based on novels and plays, and the texts act as a basis for interleaving core elements of the key stage 3 national curriculum. We have also successfully interleaved a thematic poetry unit across the whole year, with the theme acting as a useful strand to tie everything together.

Of course, interleaving can be applied to any subject. But if you want to try this approach yourself, there are some key things that you will need to do in order to make it work.

  1. Identify the core elements
    First, you will need to carefully consider what the core elements of your subject are. Try and narrow it down to five or six – and work out how you will use these to drive your new curriculum.
     
  2. Decide on the thread running through
    Will your curriculum be interleaved chronologically or thematically? How will you ensure that you meet the requirements of the national curriculum as well as building students’ background knowledge and cultural literacy?
     
  3. Get your team on board
    Map out your ideas and then speak to your department, listen to their feedback and explain your reasoning. It is important that you are all on the same page.
     
  4. Don’t expect instant success
    When you are ready to implement your new curriculum, just remember that nothing is perfect the first time. Successful curricula take time to develop, so ensure that you meet regularly with staff to share ideas about how to improve for next year.
     

Laura Tsabet is assistant head of English at Redbridge Community School in Southampton. She tweets @lauratsabet

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