Tips for making learning more manageable and easier to integrate into long-term memory.
By Julie Brink, director, viaLearning
In today’s hurried world, training needs to avoid getting bogged down with too much detail to get to the heart of things quickly. Harvard psychologist George A. Miller formulated the chunk
concept in 1956, but he never would have predicted the relevance of his findings in the 2.0 learning world. Miller believed that working memory is limited in capacity—with the ability to hold seven (plus or minus two) chunks of information at once—although 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. Since working memory is the equivalent of being mentally online, it holds a limited amount of information at one time. The brain needs help. Smaller, more manageable “chunks” or “bits” of information make learning more manageable. Whereas we might have once read a 10-page paper on a topic, learners now want to be able to have that same information in small chunks or bits. Any extraneous information that doesn’t answer key topic questions or help with an area where learners are struggling with is a waste of their time. So scope must be managed tightly, as well.
Learning When and Where You Want
Social media, video, and mobile technologies increase both the demand and expectation to receive information when and where you want it. By 2014, experts say 75 percent of Americans will have enough bandwidth to receive streaming video uninterrupted direct to their mobile device—speeds of up to 50 Mb/s. From online video help, a series of 10-minute courselets, a five-minute mobile course to active chats and blogs, learners seek convenient learning moments between meetings, at home, or in a hotel room. Publishing learning materials in the form of “knowledge nuggets” or “learning bites” can be beneficial to learners on the go.
Examples of this type of microlearning include reading a paragraph of text; listening to a podcast or educational video clip; viewing a flashcard; memorizing a word, vocabulary, definition, or formula; selecting an answer to a question; answering questions in quizzes, etc.
By delivering learning content in small, consumable portions, mobile learning also enables educators to supplement mainstream education through a method of quick review and research.
Mobile learning, therefore, facilitates an easier and natural way for learners to consume information, one that works well with human memory and today’s shorter attention spans in a noisy and crowded information world.
Designing in Chunks
Instead of just dumping information on learners, you have an opportunity to guide them by structuring your content by how our brains process information. Structure the new information in small, related chunks so it is optimized for working memory. Don’t overload the working memory with irrelevant content. If you have lots of unrelated facts, then turn bits into chunks. Bundle facts, proof points, and rules into relevant chunks of associated data to facilitate learning and retention.
E-learning need not be a 45-minute lecture, but can bring together an active and engaging combination of short videos, audio snippets, games, performance tools, activities, chats, and discussions tailored to a person’s learning style. This active learning is not only more fun but also more effective. The Research Institute of America found that 33 minutes after a lecture is completed, students 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.
How to Use Chunks and Bits
No one can retain all the content in a course. Chunking in the form of job aids, online support, tutorials, and just-in-time support (e.g., wikis and micro-blogging technologies) make learning more manageable and easier to integrate into long-term memory. Once it’s in long-term memory learners can recall it and transfer the knowledge to the real world. Some tips:
Focus on what matters.Think 80/20 and zone in on the key topic areas that will make the biggest difference.
Reinforce or build up prior knowledge. Consider a short video case study, demo, or podcast to help learners gain context and integrate prior experience. Case studies, short simulations, and practice exercises are good when they combine old and new information to build on the learner’s knowledge.
Encourage investigation. Provide resources, references, "what would you do?" scenarios, videos, and podcasts to create an ideal environment for personal exploration and investigation.
Grab interest. Make learners want to find out more by starting out with a suspenseful scenario that learners need to solve. Creating emotion and mystery is a great motivator.
Present the benefits. In two minutes or less, present “what’s in it for them.” Provide a compelling statement about how they will become more productive, reduce error, or increase sales by X percent, etc., by taking the training.
Facilitate sharing. Sharing knowledge and experience through informal networks is a motivating and natural way to learn. Blogs, forums, short videos, podcasts, and chunks of information facilitate sharing by peers and reinforce learning.
Make it real.Build in opportunities to practice, and make mistakes, in a safe environment through realistic goal-based scenarios, with coaching and support. Create short exercises and real-world scenarios that help learners apply the new information into a workplace context.
Stimulate the mind. Ask thought-provoking questions and offer problems that don’t have one right answer. Challenge learners to think about competing objectives, exceptions to a rule and to question conventional wisdom.
Designing learning in smaller, accessible chunks, as well as the advancement of video and social media tools, has the potential to be powerful tools in your e-learning program. Of course, the same sound principles of instructional design you apply to all your training development should go into your organization and use of chunks and bits. The goals and objectives should be defined. The flow should be organized and logical. The writing should be clear and concise. You get the idea.
Julie Brink is director of viaLearning, which develops, builds, and coordinates global Web-based training to maximize learning throughout the workforce. For more information, visit www.vialearning.com.