Harvard psychologist George A. Miller formulated the chunk concept in 1956. He believed that working memory is limited in capacity — with the ability to hold seven, plus or minus two, chunks of information at once. It is now believed to be closer to three or four.
For learners, it’s about how much information they can digest and process with their working memory. A 45-minute lecture isn’t productive. It can be a negative and even antagonistic experience where the learner feels forced to learn, thus attention and comprehension suffers. Breaking the lecture into chunks, however, facilitates the brain’s ability to absorb information more efficiently.
The Research Institute of America found that 33 minutes after a lecture is completed, learners retain only 58 percent of the material covered. By the second day, 33 percent is retained, and at the end of three weeks, only 15 percent of the knowledge is retained. When one practices, collaborates and applies the concepts, however, retention rises significantly. Further, topically oriented, sequenced chunks taken at a learner’s own convenience have proven effective because:
• These chunks give the learner a series of digestible, satisfying accomplishments.
• Evolving learning behavior expects information to be searchable, easy to reference and on-demand. Learning strategy should account for this.
• Chunking enables combinations of short videos, audio snippets, games, performance tools, activities, chats and discussions to provide a positive learning experience.
Learning leaders should consider the following tips before chunking information:
• Organize and sequence learning chunks for the user. Make the library searchable and accessible for deeper learning.
• Understand learner requirements thoroughly. Don’t overload the working memory with irrelevant content.
• Research the subject matter. With raw content, it’s often best to first put down all important information as bullet points grouped by headings.
• Keep in mind the course and learning objectives. Structure new information into small, topically focused and related chunks to optimize the learning experience.
After the pre-work, these chunking tips may be useful:
• Organize: Determine how modules, lessons and topics will be organized into logical and progressive order. For example, start with large chunks of conceptually related content and use these as modules.
• Topics: Divide modules into smaller related chunks, and these will become lessons. Continue with this process until content is broken down to the topic level.
• Per screen: With a solid topic structure, organize the content so each screen consists of one chunk of related information.
• Quality check: Chunk content in a way that is useful to learners. Less is more. Keep in mind the working memory only can hold a few things at a time
By chunking information, learning can transition from an imposed activity to a desired one. Retention and comprehension won’t suffer as much when learning becomes a destination such as Google or Wikipedia.
Chris Grebisz is executive vice president of strategy and technology of VIA Learning. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.