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Effective educators know that it is important to consider how the daily activities are sequenced. Teachers often choose what subjects occur at certain times in the day to ensure student attentiveness. Research shows that even within subject matter, there are a variety of ways to sequence content to promote learning and appropriate behavior.

Interspersing easier tasks among more difficult tasks, and using simple instructions to precede more difficult instructions, or “behavioral momentum,” are two strategies that have demonstrated increased student willingness to do the task or task engagement.

Task Interspersal. Students, as is true with human nature in general, are more likely to engage in an assignment if it does not require significant effort. Students can become frustrated when faced with work that is perceived as difficult or requires a slow pace, more thought, and more effort. This is particularly true of new learning, or learning that is in the acquisition stage where error rates are often high.

A simple strategy of interspersing tasks that have already been mastered within the assignment can promote greater confidence and motivation to both begin and finish the activity. While the original research was in the content area of math, the success with broader use is well known. Based upon the well-documented principles of reinforcement, completed problems are reinforcing. Easier tasks or items that are interspersed and completed readily are reinforcing for students and encourage sustained work and task completion. Task interspersing also positively impacts the overall perception of the assignment.

Considerations for using task interspersal:

  • An item must truly be at mastery level before it can be used for interspersing; that is, the easier items must indeed be easier as demonstrated by previous mastery.
  • Students prefer assignments with a mix of already mastered tasks with current skill tasks.
  • Students prefer academic assignments when up to 30% of items are new.
  • Intersperse already mastered items in a 1:3 ratio with more challenging or new items.
  • Gradually increase the number of newly learned items (e.g., to 1:8).
  • Eventually eliminate the already mastered items.
  • Task interspersal can be used when preparing materials for all students as well as an individual intervention. It allows for review of previously learned content while heading off frustration. It is well worth the time and effort to incorporate this strategy into material development.

Example: Activity sequencing using task interspersal

Emily is an average math student, but when given more difficult problems she works for a while, then quits and refuses teacher help. She has already mastered multiplication with one and two-digit numbers.

To Help Emily

The teacher arranges her work to include a mix of three-digit, two-digit,and one-digit problems. The assignment includes more two and one-digit problems than three-digit. When she finishes a series of problems, Emily is asked to raise her hand. The teacher praises Emily for effort and work completion. This series is repeated and the teacher increases the number of harder problems, checking to see that Emily is successful each time. Eventually, Emily is able to complete a full series of the three-digit problems with accuracy. (Colvin, 2009, p. 53.)

Think of the subjects or content that you teach. How can you incorporate the practice of task interspersal into your lessons? How could it be helpful for individual challenging students or for increasing motivation and engagement with all students?

BEHAVIORAL MOMENTUM. A similar strategy that relates to sequencing is using the momentum of easier tasks or requests to build energy or motion to comply with the following request or activity of greater difficulty. In essence, it is a behavioral strategy that entails making requests that are easy for the child before making requests that are more challenging or difficult.

The same principles explained above impact the likelihood that the more difficult task will be completed. Behavioral momentum can be used with individual students or with an entire class. Using behavioral momentum starts by identifying the behaviors that have a higher probability of completion. Then precede to your more difficult request by giving three or more of these requests that the student can readily do. After successfully completing each request, reinforce the student. This builds the momentum and increases the likelihood that the more difficult task, yet to be presented, will be attempted and completed. Then present the task that is known to have a lower probability of being completed, reinforce the student for doing as asked. Gradually reduce the number of easier requests.

For example, the teacher asks John, who resists doing his math, “Could you help me hand out the papers, please?” “Thanks, John for your help; you did that quickly and quietly. Would you please go back to your seat?” “Thanks again for your help; now, would you do problems 1-3 on your worksheet and raise your hand when you are done?”

Behavioral momentum can be planned into classroom schedules as well. Many teachers begin with a review of the previous day’s work or a simple task.

Considerations for using Behavior Momentum:

  • Identify behaviors that have a high probability of completion.
  • Then precede more difficult requests with three or more requests the student can readily do.
  • After successful completion, reinforce the student.
  • Then present the task that is known to have a lower probability of being completed.
  • Again, reinforce the student.
  • Gradually reduce the number of easier requests.

Another example of behavioral momentum follows:
Michael does not like to read, and in the past when asked to read he hangs his head and closes his eyes. Today, his teacher begins the small group reading assignment by reading to him briefly. Then she asks him to follow along and read with her. When he does, she praises him then asks him to read every other sentence on his own. She praises him again and now asks him to continue reading by himself. (Colvin, 2009, p. 46)

What do you already do in your classroom to sequence activities or requests to produce behavioral momentum? What students or tasks could benefit from this strategy?