How Do I Chunk Content to Increase Learning?
Dividing your course content into manageable chunks helps students learn more effectively (Ambrose et al., 2013; Felder & Brent, 2016). It can also help you be more nimble if you need to make sudden changes to your course design. On this page, we will provide some guidance on how you can chunk content so students can effectively process your course concepts and learn more.
STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES
Chunk, Chunk It Up
First chunk out foundational concepts, then chunk out more complex concepts. For example, in Geology students must be able to characterize different types of magmas before learning to identify volcanic eruptions, because the magma characteristics dictate the type of eruption. If students learn about magmas first and fully, they will be much more successful at using that knowledge to identify eruptions. In general, you can encourage students to work on their comprehension of foundational concepts though activities such as focused reading notes or a background knowledge probe. When they are ready to move on to more complicated analysis tasks, you can assign believing and doubting activities.
Create a cycle of learning that introduces chunks of knowledge and gives students opportunities to engage actively with the chunks. You might create a cycle that requires students to encounter new ideas (lecture, video, or readings), and then practice engaging with those ideas (through low-stakes assignments, group interaction, online discussions, buzz groups, reflective silences). For example, each topic in Maria Andersen’s mathematics class follows a “Learn, Explore, Do” format (Stachowiak, 2020). To “Learn” about linear regression, students encounter the topic using things such as guided notes and videos. For the “Explore” phase, they visit Graphs in the World, find a linear graph, make a dataset to match it, post their graphs in an online discussion board, and other students apply statistical concepts to the examples. For the “Do” phase, students complete problem sets on their own.
Give Students Time to Think and Process
For complex topics, encourage students to explore a problem before they receive instruction. Before you introduce a new topic, ask students to guess at what the topic might include. Ask them to review the headings throughout a chapter without reading the text. What is this chapter about? How might it relate to what they already know? This helps them apply their prior knowledge and structures of understanding, which can reduce cognitive load and allow them to process new information more efficiently (Lizarov, 2019).
Slow down and space out more complex material. Spend less time explaining easier concepts (or provide resources for learning outside of class such as videos, handouts, or brief texts), and have students spend more time working actively on harder concepts (Felder & Brent, 2016). Instead of using one slide to explain something complicated, show a process over several slides, images, or, better yet, activities. For example, this slide on mitosis is full of important information but is overwhelming to process. Instead, divide this into multiple slides that allow you to point out key changes from one phase to the next.
Actively assess whether your chunks are the right size. If it takes students more than a few minutes to complete a new formula, consider breaking the formula into smaller parts (Felder & Brent, 2016). Also, be sure to use regular formative assessment strategies such as the Critical Incident Questionnaire or the “muddiest point activity” (“What was the muddiest point in this week’s course?”) to see if students are keeping pace with your delivery of content.
Keep your videos short. Some sources say lecture videos for classes should be no longer than 6 minutes, some say no longer than 15 minutes (Burch; Lovell & Ostendorf, 2020). The precise length should depend on the complexity of the topic and what you want students to be able to do with the information. But if you’re looking for a broad recommendation, keep them around 10 minutes long.
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Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Barkley, E. F. (2013). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.v
Burch, B. (n.d.). Video length in online courses: What the research says. Quality matters. https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/resource-center/articles-resources/research-video-length
Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Oakley, B. A. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lizarov, A. (2019, September 10). The role of chunking and cognitive load theory in the post-industrial world. EdLab, Teachers College Columbia University.
Lovell, K. and Ostendorf, A. (2020, March 27). What is chunking and why is it important? Miami University. https://www.miamioh.edu/regionals/academics/elearning/ecampus-faculty-staff/eccoe-news/2020/03/chunking-video-lectures.html
Malamed, C. Chunking information for instructional design. Retrieved from http://theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/chunking-information/v
Stachiowiak, B. (2020, July 2). Designing for the uncertain fall [audio podcast]. Teaching in Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/designing-for-the-uncertain-fall/
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