What Works in Training: Chunking

This month I am talking about a proven technique that is one of my favorite and which is really simple, chunking the content.

Often in support center training, we see trainers dumping loads of content upon learners. This is usually done verbally, perhaps with a slide presentation, or through many handouts, worksheets, and text. I liken this to pouring a pitcher of water (the content the learners need to know) over their heads. The problem is that not much of that content is going to stick, just like only some of the water will be absorbed through their skin, hair, and clothing – and the water in the hair and clothing is eventually going to evaporate and disappear. It is only the tiny bit of water (content) that gets absorbed through the surface of the skin that will stick with the learner. Everything else is runoff or evaporation. In training, this approach leaves participants overwhelmed, and they only remember a small percentage of the content.

Likewise, you could hold the pitcher of water over the learners’ open mouths and pour it in, but there is a reason why waterboarding is a form of torture. While more of the content (or water) will get into the participants, it is most likely to make them ill rather than help the content stick with them.

No, what we should do is pour the water into glasses and let the learners sip the water until it is all consumed. With content, we do that by chunking. Chunking is about dividing the content into shorter bits of no more than 10-20 minutes and then having the learners DO something with the content before adding any more.

Why 10-20 minutes and not 30-50 minutes? For one thing, commercials appear in TV shows about every 8 minutes and we’ve gotten accustomed to having mental breaks or shifts in action that frequently. But the main reason has to do with avoiding cognitive overload. Our brains can only handle so much information in our working memory. Once that limit is reached, some information has to move into longer-term memory, or new information is just not retained at all. Since working memory can only hold information for up to a minute, information is constantly being moved into longer term memory. Chunking helps reinforce this activity and move content deeper into long-term memory.

The capacity of memory differs based on previous familiarity with the content and the complexity of the content. So more complex content should be delivered in smaller chunks, as should content that is completely unfamiliar to participants. Refresher training that is reminding participants of information they have previously been exposed to can be done in slightly larger chunks, but always remaining within the 10-20 minute guideline.

At this point, you might be skeptical about your ability to deliver all the content you need to deliver in 10-20 minute chunks. The first thing to consider is whether you really do need to deliver all of that content. Do the participants really need to know everything there is to know about the new system you are training, about the history of your company, or every conceivable situation they might run into? Probably not, at least not immediately. What do they immediately need to know in order to perform? Once you have identified the need-to-know content, you should only cover what they really need to know NOW. The nice-to-know information or just interesting information can be put into a handout or on a knowledgebase for learners to pick up on their own later.

Once you know what content is essential, you still need to know what to do every 1020 minutes. It doesn’t have to be something that takes a lot of time. My favorite activity is what Sharon Bowman, the author of seven very practical books on training, calls one-minute review activities.

A one-minute review activity is a short activity that calls for each participant to pause, think back on what was just covered, and process it in some way. For example:

  • Turn to the person next to you/behind you, and tell them the most important thing you have heard in the last 10 minutes.
  • Write a one sentence summary of what we just covered and share it with your neighbor.
  • Look over your notes and circle three important things (or star the most important thing, or highlight something you have questions about, or mark an action idea you want to use later). Then compare with your neighbor.
  • Ask for a number between one and five, and then have the class shout out that number of items about the topic just covered.
  • Stand and stretch your arms to the ceiling. Then tell your neighbor the most important thing you just heard in the content. (Great for getting the blood moving a little and getting oxygen to the brain.)
  • Explain to a partner how you think this information will help you.
  • Make up a test question about what we discussed and write it on an index card side, putting the answer on the opposite side of the card. (The Trainer might then collect these to use in a future class.)
  • With a partner, in two minutes, make a list of everything you now know about the topic.
  • Ask true/false questions about the material just covered and have participants respond with a signal – a thumbs up or down, a clap or a foot stomp, holding up a green or a red card, etc. This can also help you determine if you need to clarify or repeat any content.

These activities only have to take 1-2 minutes. And I also want to point out that they do NOT involve very much interaction with the trainer. Not everything has to go through the trainer. Sharing just with one or two people sitting nearby is sufficient, and often the small group will self-correct any misconceptions, or at least bring them up as questions to the trainer and class. If everybody has to share with everyone else in the class, one-by-one-by-one, it will take a lot longer and put some people’s minds back to sleep. Avoid doing that. Just listen in, circulate, and notice what is going on during the 1-2 minutes of activity.

Of course, you still want to do longer application practices of the material, but that does not have to happen every 10-20 minutes. I personally like to string together three to five related chunks, doing a different one-minute activity between each and then a longer concrete practice after the string of chunks. And I try hard to keep my chunks as close to 10 minutes as possible, leaving room for when I have underestimated or participant questions and reactions make things go longer.

Chunking makes the class more interactive, helps the participants be responsible for their own learning, and helps avoid wasted training time due to cognitive overload. It is a technique that allows participants to sip at the content over time, absorbing it more thoroughly and retaining it longer. Just try it out, if you don’t do it already, and let us know about your most creative review activities in the comments below.

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