George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Bringing Interval Instruction to Your Classroom

Research finds that lessons that go from direct instruction to active learning and back again can increase students’ understanding.

April 26, 2024
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When we head to the gym, some of us spend the majority of our time engaging in aerobic activities, and some of us spend most of our time lifting weights. Others mix and match, engaging in a series of workouts that mix cardio and lifting. This latter form of workout, known as interval training, may be a great option not only for working out but also as a parallel approach to helping students learn in the classroom.

A recent study compared the learning of students when provided with extended time in direct instruction or active learning: a block of both in which students engaged in each methodology for about nine minutes and in intervals of three-minute changes between both approaches. The three-minute intervals turned out to be the most beneficial for students in learning and applying core content. The intervals allow students to stay focused on explicit modeling while also having time to process the information with others. These two approaches appear to complement each other when placed in a brief window of time.

Interestingly, students tended to prefer the interval approach to other formats. This may be due, at least in part, to our current habits related to our attention span. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, shared that our ability to hold focused attention has dwindled from an average of 2.5 minutes to a little under 50 seconds in the past 20 years. This 47-second average is the sustained time that people can engage in a task that has some degree of challenge or difficulty.

By engaging in a mixed-methods approach, teachers can tap into students’ current levels of attention to model and enable students to process new content knowledge.

To begin an interval-style approach in the classroom, teachers need to prepare for stops within explicit instructional lessons, segues between both approaches, and strategies to maximize learning and reduce inefficiencies in transitions. Here are a few ideas to create the jolt that students need to engage fully in a classroom lesson.

2 Ways to Bring Interval Instruction to Your Classroom

1. Focus on chunking. Chunking is a way in which teachers structure new content by breaking whole concepts or models into small digestible bites for students to comprehend. Teachers typically provide reading of new material, explicit modeling, frequent review, and discussions and application activities to enable students to learn new pieces of content and then organize the information into patterns and chunks. To infuse chunking into interval training, teachers may consider engaging in the following:

Break your information down into small three-minute chunks of information. The first interval should provide an overview of the lesson. The next series of intervals will break the overview into smaller chunks or parts. For instance, you may share that you are going to discuss the cardiovascular system and provide an overview of the organ system and that each chunk will be a part of the system (e.g., heart, lungs, blood).

During explicit instruction, infuse random questioning and actively involve students in the lecture through choral and echo reading to gain familiarity with the nomenclature. Random questioning typically includes cold-calling on students to address questions such as these: How are the heart and lungs alike? How are they different? What is the main idea of homeostasis? What are the strengths and weaknesses of metaphors that we use for our organs such as the heart or lungs? What are some possible solutions for the problems of the following heart conditions? What do you still not understand about blood flow?

Backward-fade procedures so that students fill the gaps of worked problems from the last step, giving them an opportunity to routinely see you complete the first, most complex, steps of a problem. In a backward fade, a teacher would model the first several steps and then leave the last step for students to complete. For instance, if you were working on a five-step problem with students, you would model steps one through four, and then they would do step five.

This process allows you to continually model the first several steps, which are typically the most complicated, and then give students the opportunity to successfully complete the last step. You repeat this process, slowly fading the scaffolding. So in the next round of the five-step process you would model steps one through three, and students would complete steps four and five.

2. Build structured conversations. Structure active learning using short and sharp practices. The following practices may be helpful.

A three-interval drill. This strategy tasks students with forming sentences using conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, and appositives or fronted adverbials through oral communication. For instance, you may ask students to create a sentence comparing the lungs and the heart, then incorporating academic vocabulary such as oxygenated or deoxygenated blood, followed by creating three sentences that infuse because, but, and/or, so.

The two-box induction process. This method requires students to evaluate related but uniquely different ideas within two boxes. For instance, one box may illustrate organs within the cardiovascular system, while the other box shows organs within the digestive system. Students work together to create sentences showing relationships between both boxes.

A Frayer model. Using this tool allows you to infuse different levels of questions for students to complete in pairs or groups. A Frayer model has four boxes, in which each box specifies a different level of complexity. Box one requires students to answer a “what” or “how” question (e.g., What is the primary function of the heart?). Boxes two and three require students to answer a “why” question (e.g., Why does the heart appear to never rest in the human body?). Box four tasks students with answering a transfer-style question (i.e., including to what extent, should, who).

An extended three-interval drill. This allows you to have students use contrasting and comparing connectives along with summaries. For instance, once students have used a conjunction, another student follows up with a new sentence that begins with a comparing connective (e.g., In addition…) or contrasting connective (e.g., On the other hand…).

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