Mixing up topics in your study plan might seem … mixed up. You’ve spent your school years reviewing one thing at a time, being tested on it, then moving on. It seems counterintuitive to switch to another subject right when you feel everything is starting to click. But that’s exactly what we recommend.
Interleaving is a study technique shown to improve recall on a final exam by up to 76% over traditional or “block” study. It's been proven to enhance not only the encoding but also the cognitive processing involved with learning.
Interleaving is combining multiple topics into the same study session. For example, you can have a Pulmonary Q&A spaced retrieval session combined with an initial reading from Cardiology combined with a preview session from ID. And you can hop between them, spending 5–10 minutes on each.
Think of your study time in terms of baseball. Let's say you’re a baseball player in spring training. You’re having trouble hitting a curve ball, so you ask your training partner to pitch them to you until you have it down. After a while you’re hitting every pitch and feeling pretty good. Will this practice session improve your game? Probably not. The hitter’s so-called "progress" is really just anticipation.
In a real game, the pitcher will vary his pitches with fast balls and sliders, actively trying to throw batters off and keep them guessing. The only realistic batting practice is a series of random pitches.
Once you start studying this way, you will see that you remain fresher and have better focus throughout the study session.
Bouncing back and forth between topics can be thought of as a mini retrieval practice. The more often you recall knowledge, the better your grasp of it and the stronger your memory of it.
Mixing concepts forces you to contrast and compare similar information in different topics, thereby building new and stronger connections to and between concepts and developing a more robust understanding of each. You don’t get this benefit from studying one topic at a time.
Interleaving is active learning—as opposed to traditional, passive learning; you are actively engaged in the learning process rather than merely being a passive receptacle. You are constantly thinking about what you are doing and are directing all your own efforts. This helps you maintain focus and deepens your learning. As you might guess, active learning meshes very well with growth mindset.
If you wait until you’re “in the game” to mix it up study topics, you'll be facing the challenge of a diagnosis or an exam with no real preparation when the stakes are high. Sounds like a recipe not for success, but anxiety!
When you’re faced with an unanticipated problem, you must actively retrieve knowledge from memory and apply it to the challenge at hand in the time allotted.