Unbundling Complex Concepts and Skills to Solve the ‘Tappers and Listeners’ Problem

Frequently, in our beginning accounting course, some of our students find a topic or procedure completely incomprehensible. Since these topics are discussed and illustrated in the textbook, our initial reaction was that these students simply weren’t doing the assigned reading. In some cases this was true, but not in all cases. After some reflection and analysis, it dawned on us that we were dealing with a “tappers and listeners” problem.

Tappers and Listeners

In Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe the “tappers and listeners” phenomenon that was the focal point of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation. The subjects in Newton’s investigation were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The tappers were given a list of 25 well-known songs, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday,” and they were instructed to tap the notes to the songs. Those in the listeners group had to identify the songs from the tapping. Prior to the exercise, the tappers predicted that the listeners would correctly name the songs 50% of the time. However, the listeners correctly guessed only 2.5% of the songs. The tappers had significantly underestimated the difficulty of the task when the song’s title, melody, and lyrics were not known.

Cognitive Load Theory

As instructors, we are the tappers. The textbook material makes perfect sense to us. However, our students, the listeners, are hearing a series of incomprehensible taps. According to the Heath brothers, the problem is that, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.” This is especially true in situations that involve teaching and learning complex concepts and skills. As cognitive load theory explains, highly complex skills require mastery of multiple prerequisite elements (i.e., core concepts) that must be processed simultaneously. In the case of experts, these multiple elements are stored in long-term memory as a single element. Since we are experts in our disciplines, these connected knowledge structures or schemata allow us to process complex concepts and perform complex skills effortlessly. When we teach a complex topic, according to Heath and Heath, “…it is impossible to avoid hearing the tune playing along to [our] taps.” For the novice learner, these elements are stored as single elements without the cognitive benefit of element interrelatedness, and as listeners, unfortunately, they may only hear “… a kind of bizarre Morse code.”

To illustrate further, consider how the experienced driver of a vehicle with a 5-speed manual transmission may no longer be cognizant of the underlying individual skills mastered in order to drive the vehicle successfully. However, the failure to perform only one of the underlying skills, like releasing the clutch slowly and smoothly, prevents the novice driver from succeeding. When the instructor and learner identify the deficiencies in this underlying skill, they can redirect their efforts to the prerequisite skill so that success is possible. Interestingly, the omission of just one “tap” when tapping out a song as familiar as “Happy Birthday” can make the song unrecognizable. It is the presence of each individual tap and the interrelationships between them that make the song recognizable. Likewise, it is the learner’s competency in, and understanding of, each of the underlying skills that make the learning of complex concepts and skills possible.

So how do we apply all this in our classrooms? It’s helpful to start by identifying the course content with which students most often struggle. This task will likely be easy for most of us. However, do we know why students struggle with this content? Have we identified the fundamental elements or core concepts that students must understand and simultaneously process in order to learn this new and difficult content? From another perspective, have we identified the gaps in our students’ mastery of these elements or core concepts, gaps that could prevent success in learning the new and difficult content?


We have chosen the term “unbundling” to describe the pedagogical strategy of identifying the underlying skills and core concepts that must be mastered in order to learn a more complex concept or skill, and then communicating such information to our students. As educators, we know why these prerequisite competencies are essential, but the novice learners in our class likely do not. All they know is that they don’t understand the new concept or can’t demonstrate the new skill. If we communicate the underlying skills necessary for understanding new content, we make learning transparent. That helps students identify and address those deficiencies that are preventing them from learning the new content.

Finally, the unbundling process has the potential to positively influence our classroom presentation of new and difficult content. It may lead us to include a quick review of these skills and concepts prior to introducing new content, thus helping students identify gaps in their knowledge bases. As students wrestle with complex content, knowledge of the underlying elements can direct their efforts to one element at a time and avert the heavy cognitive load that often accompanies “unbundled” content. The Heath brothers point out that for experts, “our knowledge has cursed us,” but that doesn’t have to be the case. Unbundling requires those of us who are “tappers” to remember that it’s not so easy when you’re a “listener.”

Lana L. Becker and Kent N. Schneider are from East Tennessee State University. L. Becker can be reached at becker@etsu.edu.

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