I want to return for a minute to a chapter in James Lang’s Small Teaching, which I mentioned before felt relevant to library teaching. “Chapter 3: Interleaving” tackles the learning principle of distributed or spaced learning. The idea here is that massed or block practice (aka, cramming) is very effective for short-term retention but spaced learning is the clear winner for long-term and transferrable learning. The science points to memory retrieval being the key. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, quoted in Small Teaching and the authors of Making it Stick, offer the following explanation.
Embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, in which memory traces (the brain’s representations of new learning) are strengthened, given meaning, and connected to prior knowledge – a process that unfolds over hours and may take several days. Rapid-fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal… Hence, spaced practice works better. The increased effort to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.
Lang refers to interleaving as “spiraling.” “The first time you approach the material, you are making a single spiral at the bottom level,” he says. “The next time you return to it you are circling back through the material but at a slightly higher level. Spiraling can feel frustrating to the learner because you are, in a sense, going around in circles. However, you are also moving upward with each spiral, adding new layers of learning every time you push back through the material.” I like to think of this as switchbacks. Anyone who’s ever traveled in mountains is familiar with switchbacks. They’re a way to ascend or descend a steep slope by going in zigzags. Each zig takes less effort, albeit over a longer distance, than trying to go straight. Safer, too.
This idea, explained by Lang, immediately brought me to an “aha!” Library instruction is, at its core interleaving, and that’s actually optimal for what we’re trying to accomplish, which are skills for a lifetime, not momentary retrieval. The greatest gain in this idea isn’t in the suggestions he makes for enacting interleaving in the classroom but the language for taking what library instruction can do and explaining it scientifically rather than didactically. It is true that library instruction is typically in a one-shot format because of circumstance, but we can also reframe this circumstance to see it as a scientifically optimal way for achieving our goals. What would happen in our conversations with instructors and administration if we were able to bring research to bear on the necessity of including librarians frequently and at multiple points in a curriculum? “It’s important,” we say, and they nod, but what if we truly backed up our claims the way that students are required to in their papers?
The downside to this approach from the student perspective, as you have observed and Lang notes, is that students can find it frustrating. Students tell you (or tell their instructor, who then tells you) that they’ve “learned all this before.” They tell faculty that they don’t need you to come back to class, or the faculty themselves decide that the students have received enough instruction, usually at some removed distance from the class in question, and don’t need any more because “it’s been covered already.” Lang admits that “students might not respond with unbridled enthusiasm” to a fully interleaved approach, which is more intense than what is typical of library instruction. I admit that this lack of “unbridled enthusiasm” can create challenges to convincing instructors to include more library instruction, but it can also be the point at which we pull out the literature to back our claims. Consider: “Blocked study or practice deepens our association between a learned skill or concept and the specific context in which we learned it; interleaved learning, by contrast, forces us into frequent transfers of information and skills across contexts, which helps us develop the ability to recognize when a learned skill might apply in a new context.” The whole idea of transferability is the holy grail of education, and a good counterargument for the traditional assumptions regarding students ability to transfer skills between contexts and subject discourses.
The critical component here isn’t simply repeated exposure to the same material, but the incremental leveling up. It’s retrieval of previous information and the expectation of applying that information in a more advanced way each time it is reintroduced. This is what creates meaningful, lasting learning that persists beyond the classroom.
What would change if we reframed for ourselves the limits of one-shot instruction as interleaving, a scientifically optimal mode of learning for the long haul? What would happen if we communicated one-shot instruction this way to our students, faculty, and administration?