We all have that one friend. You know the one—they start with a story about their favorite football player, but somehow ends up explaining how bitcoin is the future of currency. It can be frustrating having a conversation with that person, but when it comes to studying, their style of mixing it up could be a good thing.
Varying your study topic, called interleaving learning, leads to better recall and retention. One study showed a 76% better retention spike after one month of using interleaving to study.
Open any textbook and you’ll see how it's designed with sequential or “block” learning in mind. The idea is to study one topic at a time, master it, then move on to the next. This study pattern could be represented as AAABBBCCC. By contrast, interleaving suggests you mix up a few topics resulting in a pattern of ABCABCABC.
Interleaving doesn’t feel as natural as studying in blocks, but it yields better results. Studies show that testers who use interleaving perform better on the final exam than block learners do.
Did you notice we emphasized the final exam?
We make that distinction because while they are learning, block learners feel more confident in their grasp of the material and tend to perform better on topical tests. This success can be explained by the idea of cramming. Short-term memory performs better when you cram, but cramming does nothing for long-term knowledge. In the short term, block learning gives you a false sense of mastery that may betray you in a few weeks or months.
Interleaving feels harder, and while you are learning you may feel less sure of the material. But guess what—you’ll perform much better in a few weeks or months because interleaving helps imprint information for long-term, rather than short-term memory. It does take more effort, but it’s worth it because it lasts long-term. Make it too easy on your brain, and nothing is retained.
Interleaving works in tandem with spaced repetition because, in the intervals between your reviews of a topic, you need another topic to study. As you become more familiar with a topic, you study it less frequently and have room to introduce new topics into your schedule.
Interleaving works best with the knowledge you have but can’t always quickly retrieve. A great way to interleave is with a self-testing program, such as Q&A Premium.
"I learned from the StudyWise Guide that you need to study a topic 3-4 times to get it ingrained in your memory. That’s what I liked about the Q&As, there would be like 120 questions on one topic and 8 or 9 of those would reinstate the same idea. At first, I would second guess myself, but it was really all just to reinforce that point. I think that was really helpful." — Alexis Orama, MD
Combine the topics in one long session or in subsequent shorter sessions. After all, in exams and in practice, you don’t encounter patient problems in a neat line of specialties. They are random, forcing you to apply your knowledge from memory at any given time.