The benefit of interleaved mathematics practice is not limited
to superficially similar kinds of problems
Doug Rohrer &Robert F. Dedrick &Kaleena Burgess
Published online: 28 February 2014
#Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014
Abstract Most mathematics assignments consist of a group
of problems requiring the same strategy. For example, a lesson
on the quadratic formula is typically followed by a block of
problems requiring students to use that formula, which means
that students know the appropriate strategy before they read
each problem. In an alternative approach, different kinds of
problems appear in an interleaved order, which requires stu-
dents to choose the strategy on the basis of the problem itself.
In the classroom-based experiment reported here, grade 7
students (n= 140) received blocked or interleaved practice
over a nine-week period, followed two weeks later by an
unannounced test. The mean test scores were greater for
material learned by interleaved practicerather than by blocked
practice (72 % vs. 38 %, d= 1.05). This interleaving effect
was observed even though the different kinds of problems
were superficially dissimilar from each other, whereas previ-
ous interleaved mathematics studies had required students to
learn nearly identical kinds of problems. We conclude that
interleaving improves mathematics learning not only by im-
proving discrimination between different kinds of problems,
but also by strengthening the association between each kind of
problem and its corresponding strategy.
Keywords Learning .Mathematics .Interleaved .Spacing .
Learning techniques inspired by research in the laboratory can
improve learning in the classroom (for recent reviews, see
Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013;
Roediger & Pyc, 2012). In the study reported here, a simple
intervention designed to improve mathematics learning was
assessed in a classroom-based experiment. We first describe
the intervention and the relevant research.
The solution of a mathematics problem requires two steps, as
is illustrated by the following example:
A bug flies 48 m east and then flies 14 m north. How far
is the bug from where it started?
This problem is solved by using the Pythagorean theorem
to find the length of a hypotenuse (
p¼50 ). In other
words, students first choose a strategy (Pythagorean theorem)
and then execute the strategy. The term strategy is used
loosely here to refer to a theorem, formula, concept, or proce-
dure. Learning to choose an appropriate strategy is difficult,
partly because the superficial features of a problem do not
always point to an obvious strategy (e.g., Chi, Feltovich, &
Glaser, 1981; Siegler, 2003). For example, the word problem
about the bug does not explicitly refer to the Pythagorean
theorem, or even to a triangle or hypotenuse. Additional
examples are given in Fig. 1.
Although students must learn to choose an appropriate
strategy, they are denied the opportunity to do so if every
problem in an assignment requires the same strategy. For
example, if a lesson on the Pythagorean theorem is followed
by a group of problems requiring the Pythagorean theorem,
students know the appropriate strategy before they read each
problem. The grouping of problems by strategies is termed
blocked practice, and the large majority of practice problems
in most mathematics textbooks are blocked. Blocked practice
served as the control in the study reported here.
D. Rohrer :R. F. Dedrick :K. Burgess
University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA
D. Rohrer (*)
Psychology PCD4118G, University of South Florida, Tampa,
FL 33620, USA
Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330
In an alternative approach that is evaluated in the present
study, a majority of the problems within each assignment are
drawn from previous lessons, so that no two consecutive prob-
lems require the same strategy—a technique known as inter-
leaved practice. With this approach, students must choose an
appropriate strategy and not only execute it, just as they must
choose an appropriate strategy when they encounter a problem
during a cumulative exam or high-stakes test. Put another way,
blocked practice provides a crutch that might be optimal when
students first encounter a new skill, but only interleaved practice
allows students to practice what they are expected to know. To
create assignments with interleaved practice, the problems
within a set of blocked assignments can be rearranged (Fig. 2).
In addition to providing opportunities to practice choosing
a strategy, interleaved mathematics assignments guarantee
that problems of the same kind are distributed, or spaced,
across different assignments (Fig. 2). Spacing typically
improves performance on delayed tests of learning (e.g., for
recent reviews, see Dunlosky et al., 2013; Roediger & Pyc,
2012), and several studies have shown that spacing can
improve the learning of mathematics, in particular (Rohrer &
Tay lor, 2006,2007; Yazdani & Zebrowski, 2006). To sum-
marize thus far, interleaved practice has two critical features:
Problems of different kinds are interleaved (which requires
students to choose a strategy), and problems of the same kind
are spaced (which usually improves retention).
Previous studies of interleaved practice
Four previously published studies compared the effects of
interleaved and blocked mathematics practice (Le Blanc &
Simon, 2008; Mayfield & Chase, 2002; Rohrer & Taylor,
2007; Taylor & Rohrer, 2010). In each of the studies, partici-
pants received interleaved or blocked practice of different kinds
of problems, and interleaving produced better scores on a
delayed test. However, in each of these studies, the different
kinds of problems (and the corresponding strategies) were
nearly identical in appearance (Fig. 3). In one study, for exam-
ple, every problem included a variable raised to an exponent,
and, in another, every problem referred to a prism. We refer to
problems with shared features as superficially similar problems,
and this similarity might hinder students’ability to distinguish or
discriminate between different kinds of problems. Indeed, the
benefit of interleaved practice is often attributed to improved
discrimination, as we will detail in the Discussion section.
Therefore, the superficial similarity of the problems used in
previous studies leaves open the possibility that the test benefit
of interleaving is limited to scenarios in which students learn to
solve kinds of problems that look alike, and such a boundary
condition would curtail the utility of interleaved practice in the
classroom, where students encounter problems that are often
easily distinguished from other kinds of problems.
We compared interleaved and blocked mathematics practice
in a classroom-based experiment with a counterbalanced,
crossover design. Students learned to solve different kinds of
problems drawn from their mathematics course, and they
received the lessons and assignments from their regular
teacher over a period of nine weeks. Two weeks after the last
assignment, students sat for an unannounced test. Unlike
previous studies of interleaved mathematics practice, the dif-
ferent kinds of problems were superficially dissimilar.
A A bug flies 48 m east and then 14 m north.
How far is the bug from where it started?
B A bug flies 48 m east and then 14 m west.
How far is the bug from where it started?
C Find the length of the line segment with
endpoints (1, 1) and (5, 4).
D Find the slope of the line that passes
h the points (1, 1) and (5, 4). slope
Fig. 1 The two steps in the solution of a problem. To solve a problem,
students must choose a strategy and then execute it. Superficially similar
problems may require different strategies (A and B, or C and D), and
superficially dissimilar problems may require the same strategy (A and
C). Regardless of similarity, students know the strategy in advance when
working a block of problems requiring the same strategy
1324 Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330
The study took place at a public middle school in Tampa,
Florida. Three teachers and eight of their seventh-grade math-
ematics classes participated. Each teacher taught two or three
of the classes. Of the 175 students in the classes, 157 students
participated in the study. Of these, 140 students attended class
on the day of the unannounced test, and only these students’
data were analyzed. Nearly all of the students were 12 years of
age at the beginning of the school year.
Students learned to solve four kinds of problems drawn from
their course (Fig. 4). To confirm that students could not solve
these kinds of problems before the experiment, we administered
a pretest with one of each kind of problem. Averaged across
problems, just 0.7 % of the students supplied both the correct
answer (e.g., x= 7) and the correct solution (the steps leading to
the answer). When scored solely on the basis of answers (which
presumably included guesses), the mean score was 3.2 %.
The four kinds of problems were not only superficially
different from each other, but also quite unlike other kinds
of problems that the students had seen prior to the completion
of the experiment. For example, although students ultimately
learn how to solve many kinds of equations, a linear equation
was the only kind of equation that these students had encoun-
tered previously in school (Fig. 4A). Likewise, a linear
equation was the only kind of equation that the students had
previously graphed (Fig. 4C). The slope problem (Fig. 4D)
was also moderately unique, because the term “slope”is used
only in limited contexts. However, the proportion word prob-
lem (Fig. 4B)doesresembleotherkindsofwordproblems.
For the study, we used a counterbalanced crossover design.
We randomly divided the eight classes into two groupsof four,
with the constraint that each group included at least one of the
classes taught by each teacher. One group interleaved their
practice of problems kinds A and B and blocked their practice
of kinds C and D, and the other group did the reverse.
During the nine-week practice phase, students received ten
assignments with 12 problems each. Across all assignments,
the students saw 12 problems of each of the four kinds (Fig. 4).
The remaining problems were based on entirely different topics.
Students received the ten assignments on Days 1, 15, 24, 30/31,
36, 37, 57, 58, 60, and 64. Every student received the same
problems, but we rearranged the problems to create two versions
of each assignment—one for each group. The first four prob-
lems of kinds A, B, C, and D were the first four problems of
Assignments 1, 2, 4, and 5, respectively. If a problem kind was
learned by blocked practice, the remaining eight problems
appeared in the same assignment as the first four, meaning that
the assignment included one block of 12 problems. If a problem
50 51 52 53 54 55 60 70 90
1 50 51 52 53 54 55 60 70 90
2 50 51 52 53 54 55 60 70 90
3 50 51 52 53 54 55 60 70 90
4 50 51 52 53 54 55 60 70 90
on each of
5 49 50 51 52 53 54 59 69 89
6 48 49 50 51 52 53 58 68 88
7 47 48 49 50 51 52 57 67 87
8 46 47 48 49 50 51 56 66 86
9 45 46 47 48 49 50 55 65 85
10 40 41 46 47 48 49 50 60 84
11 30 31 32 33 34 35 40 50 70
12 10 11 12 13 14 15 20 30 50
Fig. 2 A hypothetical set of assignments providing interleaved practice.
Each column represents an assignment, and each table entry indicates the
lesson number on which the problem is based. For example, if Lesson 50
is on ratios, the corresponding assignment includes four ratio problems
and one problem on each of eight lessons seen earlier in the school year
(or during the previous school year). Another eight ratio problems
(Lesson 50) are distributed across future assignments, with decreasing
frequency. In other words, problems of different kinds are interleaved
(which requires students to choose a strategy), and problems of the same
kind are spaced (which improves retention). Note that the arrangement
shown here is not the one that was used in the present study
Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330 1325
kind was learned by interleaved practice, the remaining eight
problems of the same kind were distributed across the remaining
assignments. This meant that students saw the last problem of
each kind on a later date in the interleaved condition than in the
blocked condition, which is an intrinsic feature of assignments
with interleaved practice (Fig. 2). The effect of this difference in
“true test delay”is detailed in the Results.
Shortly before the scheduled date of each assignment,
teachers received paper copies for their students and a slide
presentation with solved examples and solutions to each prob-
lem. We asked teachers to present the examples before dis-
tributing the assignment. On the following school day,
teachers presented the solution to each problem while encour-
aging students to make any necessary corrections to their own
solutions. Teachers then collected the assignments. Within
two days, one or more of the authors visited the school, scored
each assignment (without marking it), and returned the as-
signments to the teachers. Although these scores do not mea-
sure students’mastery, because students could correct their
errors while the teacher presented the correct solutions, this
scoring of the assignments provided us with evidence of
teacher compliance with the experimental procedures.
Students were tested two weeks after the last assignment. We
asked teachers not to inform students of the test in advance,
because we did not want the final test to be affected by
cramming just prior to the test. Teachers did not see the test
before it was administered. The students were tested during their
regular class, and the teacher and one author proctored each test.
A Simplify. 8x ·4x Add exponents 32x
Simplify. Subtract exponents 2x
Simplify. 2x Multiply exponents 2 x
B Find the volume of a wedge
with radius 2 and height 3.
Find the volume of a spheroid
with radius 2 and height 3.
Find the volume of a spherical cone
with radius 2 and height 3.
C The base of a prism has 5 sides.
How many faces does the prism have? base sides + 2 5 + 2 = 7
The base of a prism has 5 sides.
How many corners does the prism have? base sides x 2 5 x 2 = 10
The base of a prism has 5 sides.
How many ed
es does the prism have? base sides x 3 5 x 3 = 15
Fig. 3 Problems learned in previous studies of interleaved mathematics:
Students learned to solve several kinds of problems relating to (A)
exponent rules (Mayfield & Chase, 2002), (B) the volume of obscure
solids (Le Blanc & Simon, 2008; Rohrer & Taylor, 2007) or (C) prisms
(Taylor & Rohrer, 2010) [EE2] In each study, the different kinds of
problems (as well as the corresponding strategies) were nearly identical.
Note that each of the studies included four or five kinds of problems, but
only three are shown here
1326 Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330
All of the test problems were novel. The test included three
problems of each of the four kinds, and each of the four pages
included a block of three problems of the same kind. We created
three versions by reordering problems within each block, and
students in adjacent chairs received different versions. Students
were allotted 36 min and allowed to use their school-supplied
basic calculator. Each test was scored on site that day by two
raters who were blind to each student’s group assignment. The
two raters scored each answer as correct or not correct and later
resolved the few discrepancies (17 of 1,680). Test score
reliability was moderately good (Cronbach’s alpha = .78).
A repeated measures comparison of the two halves of the test
showed that interleaved practice was nearly twice as effective as
blocked practice, t(139) = 10.49, p< .001 (Table 1). The effect
size was large, d= 1.05, 95 % CI = [0.80, 1.30]. This benefit of
interleaving was observed for each of the four kinds of prob-
lems, ps < .01. The effect sizes for the four kinds (A, B, C, and
D) exhibited a positive trend (0.72, 0.45, 1.00, and 1.27, respec-
tively). This means that the interleaving benefit was larger for
problem kinds introduced later in the practice phase. In other
Problem 1. Choose Strategy 2. Execute Strategy
Solve the equation.
3(x + 1) = x + 17
Isolate x terms on one
side of the equation
3x + 3 = x + 17
2x + 3 = 17
2x = 14
x = 7
Penelope’s new tractor
requires 14 gallons of gas to
plow 6 acres. How many
gallons of gas will she need
to plow 21 acres?
Create a proportion
Graph the equation.
y = 2x + 1
Choose at least two
values of x and find
values of y.
Find the slope of the line that
passes through the points
(3, 5) and (6, 7).
Fig. 4 Examples of the four kinds of problems used in the present studies.
(A) Solve a linear equation requiring four steps. (B) Solve a word problem
using a proportion. (C) Graph an equation of the form, y=mx +b,wherem
and bare integers. (D) Determine the slope of the line defined by two given
points with integer coordinates
Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330 1327
words, although the true test delay (the interval between the last
practice problem and the test) was larger in the blocked condi-
tion than in the interleaved condition (see the Procedure section),
the problem kinds with larger test delay differences (i.e., that
were seen earlier in the practice phase) were associated with
smaller effect sizes.Although this negative association might
reflect order effects—that is, all participants saw the four prob-
lem kinds in the same order—we cannot think of a reason why
order would matter. In brief, the effect sizes for problem kinds
introduced later in the practice phase were larger than the effects
for the earlier ones, and this trend was in the opposite direction
from what would be expected if the difference in test delays
contributed to the observed effect. Furthermore, if this difference
did play a role, it might be seen not as a confound, but as an
intrinsic feature of interleaved assignments (Fig. 2).
Whereas previous studies of interleaved mathematics practice
had required students to learn kinds of problems that were nearly
identical in appearance (Fig. 3), the results reported here demon-
strate that this benefit also holds for problems that do not look
alike (Fig. 4). That is, the benefit of interleaved mathematics
practice is not limited to the ecologically invalid scenario in
which students encounter only superficially similar kinds of
problems. Although it might seem surprising that a mere
reordering of problems can nearly double test scores, it must be
remembered that interleaving alters the pedagogical demand of a
mathematics problem. As was detailed in the introduction, inter-
leaved practice requires that students choose an appropriate strat-
egy for each problem and not only execute the strategy, whereas
blocked practice allows students to safely assume that each
problem will require the same strategy as the previous problem.
However, the interleaved practice effect observed here might
reflect the benefit of spaced practice rather than the benefit of
interleaving per se. As we explained in the introduction, the
creation of interleaved mathematics assignments guarantees not
only that problems of different kinds will be interleaved, but also
that problems of the same kind will be spaced across assign-
ments, and spacing ordinarily has large, robust effects on delayed
tests of retention. We therefore believe that spacing contributed to
the large effect observed here (d= 1.05). Still, we have reason to
suspect that interleaving, per se, contributed as well. In one
previous interleaved mathematics study, students in both the
interleaved and blocked conditions relied on spaced practice to
the same degree, and interleaving nevertheless produced a large
positive effect (d= 1.23; Taylor & Rohrer, 2010). In the present
study, though, we chose to compare interleaved practice to the
kinds of assignment used in most textbooks, which is a massed
block of problems.
Theoretical accounts of the interleaved mathematics effect
How does interleaving improve mathematics learning? The
standard account holds that the interleaving of different kinds
of mathematics problems improves students’ability to distin-
guish or discriminate between different kinds of problems (e.g.,
Rohrer, 2012). Put another way, each kind of problem is a
category, and students are better able to identify the category
to which a problem belongs if consecutive problems belong to
different categories. This ability to discriminate is a critical skill,
because students cannot learn to pair a particular kind of prob-
lem with an appropriate strategy unless they can first distinguish
that kind of problem from other kinds, just as Spanish-language
learners cannot learn the pairs PERRO–DOG and PERO–BUT
unless they can discriminate between PERRO and PERO.
This discriminability account parsimoniously explains the
interleaving effects observed in previous mathematics inter-
leaving studies, because participants in these studies were
required to discriminate between nearly identical kinds of
problems (Fig. 3). For instance, one of these previous studies
included an error analysis, and it showed that the majority of
test errors in the blocked condition, but not in the interleaved
condition, occurred because students chose a strategy
corresponding to one of the other kinds of problems that they
had learned—for example, using the formula for prism edges
rather than the formula for prism faces (Taylor & Rohrer,
2010). Furthermore, the students in this study were given a
second final test in which they were given the appropriate
strategy for each test problem and asked only to execute the
strategy, and the scores on this test were near ceiling in both
conditions. In sum, the data from this earlier experiment are
consistent with the possibility that interleaving improves stu-
dents’ability to discriminate one kind of problem from another
(or discriminate one kind of strategy from another).
However, in the present study, discrimination errors
appeared to be rare. In a post-hoc error analysis, three raters
(two of the authors and a research assistant, all blind to
conditions) examined the written solution accompanying each
incorrect answer and could not find any solutions in which
students “used the wrong strategy but one that solves another
kind of problem.”The raters then expanded the definition of
discrimination error to include solutions with at least one step
of a strategy that might be used to solve any kind of problem
other than the kind of problem that the student should have
solved. With this lowered threshold, discrimination errors still
accounted for only 33 of the 756 incorrect answers (4.4 %),
with no reliable difference between conditions (5.1 % for
Tabl e 1 Proportions correct on test
Interleaved practice .72 .30
Blocked practice .38 .35
1328 Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330
interleaved, 4.0 % for blocked). For the other incorrect
answers, students chose the correct strategy but incorrectly
executed it (45.9 %), or they relied on a strategy we could not
decipher, often because they did not show their work (49.7 %).
The virtual absence of discrimination errors is arguably not
surprising, partly because the different kinds of problems did
not look alike, and partly because some strategies were obvi-
ously an inappropriate choice for some kinds of problems
(e.g., trying to graph a line by creating a proportion). The
rarity of discrimination errors in the present study raises the
possibility that improved discrimination cannot by itself
explain the benefits of interleaved mathematics practice.
We suggest that, aside from improved discrimination, inter-
leaving might strengthen the association between a particular
kind of problem and its corresponding strategy. In other words,
solving a mathematics problem requires students not only to
discriminate between different kinds of problems, but also to
associate each kind of problem with an appropriate strategy, and
interleaving might improve both skills (Fig. 5). In the present
study, for example, students were asked to learn to distinguish a
slope problem from a graph problem (a seemingly trivial dis-
crimination) and to associate each kind of problem with an
appropriate strategy (e.g., for a slope problem, use the strategy
“slope = rise/run”), and the latter skill might have benefited from
interleaved practice. Yet why would interleaving, more so than
blocking, strengthen the association between a problem and an
appropriate strategy? One possibility is that blocked assignments
often allow students to ignore the features of a problem that
indicate which strategy is appropriate, which precludes the
learning of the association between the problem and the strategy.
In the present study, for example, students who worked 12 slope
problems in immediate succession (i.e., used blocked practice)
could solve the problems without noticing the feature of the
problem (the word “slope”) that indicated the appropriate
strategy (slope = rise/run). In other words, these students could
repeatedly execute the strategy (y
) without any
awareness that they were solving problems related to slope. In
brief, blocked practice allowed students to focus only on the
execution of the strategy, without having to associate the prob-
lem with its strategy, much like a Spanish-language learner who
misguidedly attempts to learn the association between PERRO
and DOG by repeatedly writing DOG.
It might be possible to experimentally tease apart the effects of
interleaving on discrimination and association. In one such ex-
periment, participants would receive either blocked or interleaved
mathematics practice during the learning phase, as they typically
do, and then take two tests. The first test would assess only
discrimination. For example, students might be shown a random
mixture of five problems—four problems of one kind (e.g., word
problems requiring a proportion) and one problem of a different
kind (e.g., a word problem requiring the Pythagorean theorem)—
and then be asked to identify the problem that does not fit with
the others (the Pythagorean theorem problem). Students would
repeat this task many times with different kinds of problems. On
a second test measuring both discrimination and association,
students would see problems one a time and, for each problem,
choose the correct strategy, but not execute it. Scores on the first
test (discrimination only) should be greater than scores on the
more challenging second test (discrimination and association),
with larger differences between the two test scores reflecting a
poorer ability to associate a kind of problem and its strategy.
Therefore, if interleaving improves association, the difference
between the two test scores should be smaller for students who
interleaved rather than blocked.
Finally, although we focused here on mathematics learning,
several studies have examined the effect of interleaved prac-
tice on category learning. For example, participants might see
A bug flies 48 m east and then 14 m west.
How far is the bug from where it started?
Find the length of the line segment with
endpoints (1, 1) and (5, 4).
Find the slope of the line that passes
through the points (1, 1) and (5, 4).
Fig. 5 Discrimination and association. The solution of a mathematics problem requires that students discriminate one kind of problem from another and
associate each kind of problem with an appropriate strategy. Interleaving might improve both skills
Psychon Bull Rev (2014) 21:1323–1330 1329
photographs of different kinds of birds (jays, finches, swallow,
etc.) one at a time, in an order that was either blocked (each of
the jays, then each of the finches, etc.) or interleaved (jay,
finch, swallow, etc.), and interleaving would produce greater
scores on a subsequent test requiring participants to identify
previously unseen birds (e.g., Birnbaum, Kornell, Bjork, &
Bjork, 2013; Kang & Pashler, 2012; Kornell & Bjork, 2008;
Wahlheim, Dunlosky, & Jacoby, 2011; but see Carpenter &
Mueller, 2013). As with the results of previous interleaved
mathematics tasks, the positive effect of interleaving on cate-
gory learning could also be attributed to an improved ability to
discriminate between, say, a jay and a finch. To our knowl-
edge, though, it remains an untested possibility that this effect
might also reflect a strengthened association between each
category (e.g., finches) and the category name (“finch”). The
relative contributions of enhanced discrimination and stronger
associations to interleaving effects could be disentangled by
an experiment analogous to the mathematics experiment pro-
posed in the previous section: Participants would receive two
tests: a discrimination-only test requiring them to sort birds (or
identify the one bird that is different from others), and the
usual test requiring them to name novel birds, which would
require both discrimination and association. In summary, al-
though strong evidence exists showing that interleaved prac-
tice can improve both mathematics learning and category
learning, it seems unclear why either of these effects occur.
Author Note This work was supported by the Institute of Education
Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant No.
R305A110517 to theUniversity of South Florida (PI: D.R.). The opinions
expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the
views of the U.S. Department of Education. We thank Sandra Stershic for
her help with the data analysis, and we thank Jennifer DeMik, Brendan
Paul, Nancy Self, Liberty Middle School, and Hillsborough County
Public Schools for their participation.
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