Chunking Content: A Key to Learning

One failure of the traditional face-to-face lecture is that it delivers learning content in large blocks—that is, in lengthy classes of normally 50–75 minutes. As Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski (2019) note, this violates the fundamental neurology of learning. When we learn, we first put information into our working memory, which resembles RAM memory in that it is not permanent. To make it permanent, we need to move it to our long-term memory, which is akin to a hard drive. This process requires pausing to think about the information.

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One failure of the traditional face-to-face lecture is that it delivers learning content in large blocks—that is, in lengthy classes of normally 50–75 minutes. As Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski (2019) note, this violates the fundamental neurology of learning. When we learn, we first put information into our working memory, which resembles RAM memory in that it is not permanent. To make it permanent, we need to move it to our long-term memory, which is akin to a hard drive. This process requires pausing to think about the information.

But working memory can hold up to only four discrete items. If a fifth item is added, then one of the other four items needs to fall out to make room for it. If that item has not been copied to long-term memory yet, it is lost. This means that if an educational module covers more than four discrete items without pause, at most only four of them will be retained. Cover 10 items in a lecture, and students will still retain only four.

The way to overcome this limitation is to chunk learning content. Instead of presenting a one-hour video in your online course, break it into multiple short videos with interactions in between. The interactions can be as simple as multiple-choice questions. While application-type questions are preferable to simple factual retrieval questions because they require more intensive engagement with the concepts, simple factual questions will still be effective for copying information to long-term memory.

Diego Méndez-Carbajo and Scott A. Wolla (2019) recently confirmed the value of chunking by comparing student learning from short and long online modules. They used pre- and post-module tests to measure learning and found that students who were given short modules did better at all ability levels. By grouping the students into four ability levels by pre-module test scores—0–25, 26–50, 51–75, and 76–100 percent—they were able to compare the number of students who showed improvement for each group. The percentage of students who showed improvement in the four long-module groups was 88, 85, 81, and 45, while the percentage of students who showed improvement in the four short module groups was 94, 94, 98, and 79.

An earlier study by Pomales-García and Liu (2006) also found that students perceived shorter modules as less difficult than longer modules. Plus, both the earlier study and Méndez-Carbajo and Wolla’s found that students are more likely to view shorter modules in their entirety than they are longer ones. Both researchers credited the self-pacing that shorter modules foster for some of these benefits. Today’s student is used to getting information in small packets, whether as text messages or social media videos. Short modules allow students to fit the information around their schedule, which allows for pauses between different content.

How to implement chunking in your own teaching

A simple method to chunk content is to break it into parts, whether text, audio, or video. But interactivity is also important for transferring the information from working to long-term memory. Instead of showing a 40-minute video with a 12-question quiz at the end, break the video into four 10-minute modules with three questions at the end of each. This can be easily done in any learning management system, but there are also free apps available that allow for the integration of questions or activities into learning content.

EDpuzzle is probably the best-established site for hosting interactive educational content. (PlayPosit is a similar system with nearly identical functionality.) Instructors can either upload a video or use one from an outside hosting site, such as YouTube or TED. Or, pick from among hundreds of videos and lessons created by other teachers and posted on the site. The instructor then adds interactions at various places in the video timeline. The video will stop when it hits an interaction and launch it. The interaction can be a question or other content, such as a website or video. EDpuzzle also integrates with learning management systems to collect grades. Plus, an instructor can assign portions of videos to students.

Finally, a helpful new feature for face-to-face classes or live online events is the Live Mode. The instructor can project a video onto a screen or conferencing system while students view it with their laptops or tablets open. When the video hits a question, it pauses and projects the question onto students’ screens. Students answer the question, and the instructor sees the results instantly. This allows the instructor to know whether to go over the material again.

TES Teach, VideoAnt, and Vialogues are good options for hosting discussions around videos.

Unlike traditional online discussions that separate from the content being discussed, these systems integrate video with discussion by allowing students to pause a video at any point to add a comment. While the instructor can still prime the discussion with preset questions, students are also free to add their input. If a student finds a certain claim on a video puzzling, they can post about that, and other students can chime in as well. This feature can foster genuine discussion around course content.

There are many reasons for chunking course content and many ways to do it. Try chunking in your courses to improve learning.

References

Méndez-Carbajo, D., & Wolla, S. A. (2019). Segmenting educational content: Long-form vs. short-form online learning modules. American Journal of Distance Education, 33(2), 108–119. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2019.1583514

Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (2019). Learning how to learn, Coursera.

Pomales-García, C., & Liu, Y. (2006). Web-based distance learning technology: The impacts of web module length and format. American Journal of Distance Education, 20(3), 163–179. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15389286ajde2003_4