What’s Your Native Chunk?  Chunking Content Into Digestible Bites

How could being amazing cause a problem in the classroom?

Teachers are a pretty awesome collection of superstars. You are highly educated, possess enormously rich vocabularies, and are intimidatingly well-read. You excelled in college, absorbing tons of knowledge from countless 90-minute lectures. If it helps your kids, you would watch a ten-hour documentary in a single session with nary a bathroom break (ever hear the joke that surgeons can identify if a patient is a teacher simply by looking at bladder size?). How in the world could any of these amazing qualities cause a problem in your classroom? Well, if your ‘native chunk’ is bigger than what your students are able to digest in that particular lesson, they can end up with some troubling Swiss cheese gaps in their knowledge.

In Design Question #2 of the Marzano Art & Science of Teaching Framework, one of the strategies is Chunking Content into Digestible Bites. In his book, The Art and Science of Teaching(2007), Dr. Robert J. Marzano notes: “Of vital importance to the success of critical input experiences is the extent to which the teacher organizes the experience into small chunks” (p.34). He goes on to say that chunking applies to all forms of instruction—lecture, video, reading, or any other activity where students are ‘digesting’ new information. On the other end of the spectrum, overcompensating with chunks that are too small can lead to students losing interest. This is why the Learning Sciences Marzano Center recognizes that only the teacher can determine the nature and size of the chunks—after all, you are the one who knows your students, better than anyone.

Working Memory: Hitting the Sweet Spot
Chunking strategies are based on working memory — an individual’s ability to store and manipulate information for a small block of time (note: ten percent of students have working memory problems). Give a student a chunk beyond the capacity of her working memory, and the Swiss cheese gaps appear. Give the same student a series of chunks too far below her working memory threshold, and you get Swiss cheese gaps due to a lack of engagement and wandering attention. Hit the sweet spot, however, and your students will have a much higher rate of retention.

Previewing new information is a critical strategy for determining the size and complexity of the chunks you’ll deliver. Previewing is performed to activate prior knowledge and give you an idea of what your students know, so you can then chunk information appropriately. The more familiar they are with the new information, the more you can deliver. As Dr. Marzano says in A Handbook for the Art and Science of Teaching, “In effect, the more students know about the new content, the larger the chunks can be.” The reverse is also true—the less familiar your students are with the new information, the smaller the chunks must be.

Like this strategy? We’ve got lots more! Join the Learning Sciences Marzano Center and your colleagues from around the world this summer for Marzano Conference 2013!

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