Learning Strategy Series
In a series of short introductions to adult learning strategies, I’m presenting useful tips, techniques, and concepts for both learner and instructor.
Break it Down
By Justin Griffith, Ed.D.
Chief Executive Officer of the Regional Learning Alliance
Social media, podcasts, and online news typically come in small measure. With so much information, we have very little time to spend on any one story. We have trained ourselves to acquire knowledge in small increments which can be a valuable learning technique. When we do this, we build upon what we already know which adds to our greater knowledge. Small incremental learning is known as chunking and is a productive learning and memory strategy.
Chunking is a process identified in 1956 by George Miller and advanced from the field of cognitive psychology. Essentially, you take smaller pieces of something larger and break it down into manageable pieces that are relatable to what you presently know. These chunks then may be retrieved more easily due to their coherent familiarity and will collectively make up the whole of what you need to learn.
Professional education and training programs that use chunking in their instructional design often find better overall retention. This process is effective in practical in both hard and soft-skill programs. The time spent on each chunk depends more upon the content than the actual time spent. Think of it as quality over quantity.
Spacing is simply timing out the content to be learned versus “mass” cramming of the material in a memorization-type method. Dr. Nate Kornell, an expert in the study of how people can make their individual learning more efficient, has researched extensively on the idea of spacing what you study and says, “If you don’t think spacing will work for you, think again—spacing is virtually always effective, even when it feels counterproductive.” Research has shown that spaced repetition enhances retention (Karpicke & Bauernschmidt, 2011). If you space out the content over time and build in repetition, the retention is higher than teaching (or learning) all content at one time without spacing or repetition.
Pacing is the rate of speed in which you are learning. We individually possess an ideal learning pace which can be related to factors such as prior knowledge of a subject, genuine interest in the content, disruptions, concentration, intellectual, and consequences. Pacing is an area of calculation for instructors. As learners give cues regarding comprehension and processing, it requires the instructor to exercise attention in order to adjust the pace of teaching. If processing of the content taught is not at the same speed as the teaching, the instructor can improve learning by slowing down (or vice versa).
These three techniques, chunking, spacing, and pacing, can be effective in breaking down larger content when taught to the adult learner. If we use them as a guide for something as simple as a one-day training, it may require more built-in breaks of time or switching from one idea to another more quickly so that the learner has the space between the chunk of information and the pace of teaching is considered throughout the training. If you are designing or teaching the training, give these techniques some consideration and thought. If you are a learner, use the same techniques when you study, and you may just find improved retention.
Further resources to learn more about these techniques: