The human brain is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Capable of storing a quadrillion bytes of data, it performs incredibly complex feats.1 Yet ask it to recall a string of 10 numbers or repeat a list of a few simple words, and it suddenly starts operating with all the speed and agility of a Commodore 64. To blame: the working memory. This neurological halfway house can handle just a few bits, not bytes, of information at a time.2
Given this challenge, how do you effectively educate your stakeholders — the people who depend on your knowledge to do their jobs, invest in your business, or purchase your products and services? How do you ensure information resonates — and that your audience retains it? By leveraging bite-sized content.
Chunked Learning: Easy for the Human Brain to Digest
When we humans encounter a new piece of information, our working memory allows us to hold onto it and manipulate it. For example, if someone gives you a phone number verbally, you hold it in your working memory and then work with it (e.g. enter it into your contacts or dial it).
The problem, as mentioned, is that the working memory bank is quickly filled. Many experts believe that seven pieces +/- two is the limit of our capacity.3 Therefore, it’s difficult to remember that 10-digit phone number. Unless you utilize grouping. Then 6475550128 becomes (647) 555-0128. As a result, it’s much easier to retain.
This is the concept behind chunked learning: it breaks down information into bite-sized pieces that are easily digested. Its purpose is twofold: to reduce the “cognitive load” on the working memory and to give the new information meaning and context.
Running Memory: Your Secret to Knowledge Transfer That Works
In a study led by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, experimenters read participants a series of random numbers. Most achieved the “magic” number seven before their working memory capacity was full. The researchers repeated the experiment four days a week for two years. By the end, the student who could initially remember just seven digits could recall — without error — a sequence of random numbers up to 80 digits long.4
How? He was a runner. So instead of trying to remember “random” numbers, he grouped them into track times. 8357 became 8 minutes and 35.7 seconds. Then he started using “superstructures” that combined several running times.
All told, he could recall dozens of digits. But really, he was still working with the seven or so chunks that his working memory could handle at a time. Chunking allowed him to reduce the cognitive load by giving the numbers meaning to which he could relate.
Of course, your thought leadership and content is much more engaging than a random string of numbers. But the concept remains: if you group information into bite-sized pieces, your stakeholders can retain more.
Chunked Learning and Your Curriculum
But for how long? If we looked at this student runner, for example, how long could he retain these strings of numbers? If that learning wasn’t reinforced, if he wasn’t able to work with it or build on it, he’d lose it.
The point of your online learning environment isn’t to see how much information people can hold in their working memory. It’s to educate them. Inform them. Answer their questions. Provide value. This is where the second purpose of chunking comes in: to give new information context.
Ideally, your online learning curriculum groups information in logical chunks. Instead of a pile of “Here’s everything you need to know,” content is categorized. Here’s what you need to know about employee development, leadership training, effective communication, accountability, etc. Each concept has meaning and is placed within a context that is relevant to your audience.
Testing, Testing: Reinforce Learning to Add Better Value to Your Knowledge Service
Stakeholder learning is then reinforced through quizzes or tests. The “testing theory” holds that the very act of quizzing learners helps them retain information.5 This is true even when they don’t perform well on the test!
According to Dr. Henry Roediger of Washington University’s Memory Lab, “forcing” learners to retrieve information via quizzes helps them integrate it into their long-term memories. As he explains, the effort of retrieving information “makes it retrievable when you need it.”6
When stakeholders put information into context and retrieve it, they can build on it. They can delve more deeply into your content, and they can apply it. This isn’t 80 random numbers; it’s the information they need to enhance their lives and work – and that they need to help you reach your business’ goals.
The Business Benefits of Bite-Size Learning
Chunking is the best way to educate your stakeholders — which of course leads to your business achieving its goals. It also happens to offer the added benefit of being easier for you to manage. For example, if you create a three-hour training video for your employees, it could well be obsolete in six months. That’s 90 minutes — and countless production hours and resources — wasted. If, on the other hand, you produce a series of several short videos, you can easily edit or remove irrelevant information and add new content as it becomes available.
First and foremost, this learning technique benefits your audience. And if it benefits you just as much, all the better.
The brain is awe-inspiring — but sometimes it needs a bit of help. Chunking breaks long string of information into manageable pieces. Bite-size content is approachable, relatable, and retrievable; and it is the key to transferring your knowledge effectively to engage stakeholders.