Mixing It Up in the Classroom

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814
Jeanne Slattery

Like you, I am already overextended: I’ve been making large revisions to one course, writing a second edition of one of my books, serving as secretary and a committee chair to my state association, writing/co-editing Hand in Hand, as well as working on several other large projects.

With this in mind, I approached James Lang’s (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning thinking about how I can tweak my courses to strengthen them – that’s all I can afford right now. Luckily, this is exactly how the book was intended to be used. What am I already doing well and how can I do it better?

Small Teaching is a thoughtful book that describes the what, how, and why of teaching, especially the “small changes” that we can make to make our teaching and our students’ learning more effective. I was reading Small Teaching as part of a faculty development project led by Leah Chambers and Rich Lane and am grateful to them for introducing me to it.

Mixing it up…

A number of things caught my eye as I went through the book, although one of these was interleaving, an intentional sort of “mixing it up” in order to strengthen our students’ ability to recall and use material later (rather than doing a “brain dump” at an exam, where students never return to that material). Lang (2016) identified two aspects as important:

  1. Spacing out learning across time (i.e., distributed rather than mass practice). For example, my online class this semester has five tests and 15 quizzes (three quizzes for each test). By necessity, their learning cannot be crammed, as they must see material at least twice
  2. Mixing up the practice of skills you are trying to develop (e.g., discussing Chapter 1, then 2 and 3, returning to Chapter 1). Many faculty use cumulative exams in this way.

I have already been doing some interleaving without referring to it as such. Some examples:

  • Most of my courses have themes that I develop and refer back to over the course of the semester. For example, in Abnormal Psychology, I repeatedly refer back to earlier discussions of risk, as assessed by the Adverse Child Experiences Quiz, in later discussions on substance abuse and antisocial personality disorder.
  • I often use the same or similar PowerPoint slides when I’m talking about a theme that I want my students to recognize, revisiting and enlarging ideas we discussed earlier in the semester.
  • I often refer to topics from previous courses that my departmental colleagues – or the rest of you – have discussed. For example, when discussing childhood disorders, I show this video drawn from Funniest Home Videos, then ask students how they would explain the child’s behavior using things they’ve previously learned. (My answer can be found at the asterisk, after the References.)
  • I also use previous cases in different contexts. For example, in my Intro to Counseling class, I discuss Andrea Yates repeatedly and in different contexts. Initially, they see her as horrific. By semester’s end they see her behavior that way. Repeatedly circling back to this case allows us to approach our ideas in greater depth at different times.
  • img_0262
    The last time I taught Psychology of Personal Growth, I explicitly asked students to make connections in end-of-class writing responses between what we had discussed and what we had been discussing earlier in the course (here’s one example of a response). Typically, I asked three questions: (a) What was the most important thing for you from today’s class? (b) What would you guess I would say was most important? and (c) How did today’s class expand on or develop what we’d talked about in the past weeks? Identify at least three connections.

So, I’m already doing interleaving in all sorts of ways, but I want to do so more intentionally to help my students recognize what I see as important. I want to do so more intentionally so my students’ learning and recall become more effective.

My tweak?

I suspect interleaving is more effective when we tell our students what we’re doing and why (as I did with my in-class writing assignment). In fact, I think we should generally tell our students what we’re doing and why more often. I plan on telling my students in our syllabus that at least 10% of each exam will be drawn from previous sections of the course – and why.

When I first started teaching, I “taught”: I had the information that I planned on sharing with my class. Across time, my focus has shifted from that type of teaching to student learning. I want to take the small step of using interleaving to help my students learn more effectively.


Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

*I would describe this child’s behavior in terms of operant conditioning, specifically that he has previously received positive reinforcement for tantrumming in the form of parental attention and laughter.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill, and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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1 Response to Mixing It Up in the Classroom

  1. DrOlivas says:

    I agree that interleaving is a relatively “easy” improvement in our classrooms (though Lang himself states in the book that some students will resist it). In one of my courses, I am trying one variety: going back and forth to/from a unit into others. An additional benefit (I think) is that the unit does not bore students (and me!) as it used to when I would cover it linearly!


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