Even though many people feel that success is all about whom you know, success is almost always based on what you know. That's why so many people want to learn faster, retain more information, and improve their memories.

And that's why most successful people are constant learners; that's how they stay successful.

So if you want to improve your ability to learn, here's an approach you should try: Instead of blocking (focusing on one subject, one task, or one skill during a learning session) learn or practice several subjects or skills in succession. 

The process is called interleaving: Studying related concepts or skills in parallel. And it turns out interleaving is a much more effective way to train your brain (and your motor skills.) 

I know what you're thinking: If interleaving works better, why do we tend to practice one skill at a time? Partly that's because blocking is the way we're taught to learn. Blocking is how students are typically taught in schools and how employees are taught during training, if only because those sessions are easier for a school or company to schedule and administer.

Here's an example: I'm trying to learn to play guitar. (I should just say "learning to play guitar," but the jury is still out on whether I'm actually learning. So let's stick with "trying.")

Most of the instructional guides, online programs, etc. that I found are based on blocking: One session might be scales, another chords, another arpeggios. In contrast, a program using an interleaving learning style would alternate practicing scales, chords, and arpeggios within the same session.

Or if you want to think of it another way, instead of going to the driving range and just hitting fairway woods, instead you would hit a few shots with a driver, then a few with a mid iron, then a few with a pitching wedge....

Why? One theory is that interleaving improves your brain's ability to differentiate between concepts or skills. When you block practice one skill, you can drill down until muscle memory takes over and the skill becomes more or less automatic. When you interleave several skills, any one skill can't become mindless -- and that's a good thing. Instead you're constantly forced to adapt and adjust. You're constantly forced to see, feel, and discriminate between different movements or different concepts. 

And that helps you really learn what you're trying to learn, because you it helps you understand at a deeper level.

To test the principle I decided to learn three simple guitar riffs: Smoke on the Water, 7 Nation Army, and Iron Man. I blocked them out, spending 20 minutes on each in separate sessions. 

How did that work out? If sounding like a five year-old guitar player was the goal, I was wildly successful.

Then I tried learning three more riffs: Highway to Hell, Dirty Deeds, and TNT (because too much AC/DC is never enough.) But this time I tried interleaving; once I had the basic chords kinda/sort down, I alternated playing those riffs during three 20-minute sessions.

Interleaving definitely worked better. I sounded like an eight year-old guitar player. (Woo hoo!)

Keep in mind interleaving isn't just a better way to learn a motor skill. In a three-month study with 7th graders, students who learned using interleaving scored 25 percent better than those who learned by blocking. Better yet, when tested on the same material thirty days later, the interleaving group scored 76 percent better than the block-taught group.

That means interleaving not only produces better short-term results, it also results in much greater long-term retention -- which is incredibly important in the real world where the point of learning isn't to simply remember something long enough to pass a test.

If you want to learn better -- and retain what you learn for longer -- try interleaving instead of blocking. 

My guitar says it works.

And so does science.

Published on: Mar 28, 2018