Why You Should Actually Study Multiple Topics at the Same Time

Why You Should Actually Study Multiple Topics at the Same Time

You might think that learning and mastering one concept at a time is the best way to practice and retain it — but there’s actually a better method. It’s time to stop learning bit by bit and work instead on learning concepts in a way that helps you relate them to other ideas, the way they work together in the real world. You should be studying multiple topics at once to help yourself retain more information by making connections between subjects. It’s called “interleaving,” and it’s a great study strategy.

What is interleaving?

Interleaving is the process by which you mingle multiple topics while you study so you can learn more, see how it all works together, and ultimately retain it all better. It’s the opposite of blocked practice, which happens when you study one subject at a time. Interleaving is better overall for working your brain as it helps you categorise information and work on problem-solving because you make connections between ideas.

Research published in the Educational Psychology Review in 2012 says interleaving helps students distinguish among similar concepts. (The title of the paper literally is “Interleaving Helps Students Distinguish Among Similar Concepts.”) The researcher found that when learning by blocking, students ran a higher risk of confusing similar concepts from each block. Interleaving, or having students encounter a different concept after studying one, helped them score higher on final tests.

How can you practice interleaving?

A 2015 Scientific American article summed up the practice of interleaving like this: Instead of learning Skill A, then Skill B, and combining them into the pattern of AAABBBCCC, students should work on related skills at the same time, so they can form the pattern ABCABCABC.

To do this, study mindfully. Select the topics you have to study and group them so they’re semi-related, per the University of Arizona Department of Academic Affairs. For instance, this semester I had a research methodology class and an epidemiology class. Studying each topic on its own was challenging for me because I couldn’t grasp the real-world application of either concept — but when I started studying them together, I saw how information from one class would crop up and become helpful in the other, and I did better overall.

If you have to study biology and chemistry, for instance, combine your flashcards or other study materials so you’re reviewing the ideas at the same time. You can also devote blocks of study time to the topics and switch back and forth, according to the UC San Diego Department of Psychology. Try using the Pomodoro method and devoting 25 minutes to Topic A, then taking a break and devoting the next 25 minutes to Topic B before breaking again and returning to A.

Ultimately, this can help with your retrieval of the information when you need it and will enhance your ability to remember key concepts long after your final test.


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