When I was a youngster, my nan collected her spare change in a huge glass bottle for me. At the time, I think the bottle was probably my height – it was huge and made of thick, clear glass. Every so often she would allow me to pour the contents of the bottle out and count it. This was the fun part!  Once the money had been counted, the arduous task began. This involved getting the coins back into the bottle; grabbing a handful at a time and slowly releasing them into the bottle neck. The main bottle could hold what seemed like endless amounts, but getting the coins in was no easy task.


The more I did it, the more I realised that if I collected the same coins together and put them into small piles, the more efficient I could become as they would slide in smoothly, rather than attempting to drop a load of random shaped and sized coins in, which would fight to get in through the bottleneck.


In 1956 George A Miller asserted that our capacity for processing information is limited to seven, plus or minus two pieces of information. This later led to the working memory model by Baddeley and Hitch. Essentially, the working memory (WM) is the narrow bottleneck to the huge long term memory we have. The working memory can only handle a limited amount of information at one time (much like the bottleneck can only handle a limited amount of coins) and therefore, the more efficient our methods of teaching are, the more we are likely to minimise ‘overload’ in order to aid long term memory (the endless bottom of the bottle).


Chunking information for learners seems an obvious way to do this, doesn’t it? How many of us do though? I am certainly guilty of trying to cram lots into lessons from time to time, leaving learners bamboozled and actually causing me more work later down the line. Here’s some ideas as to how you might ‘chunk’ the learning to support learners in processing information more effectively in lessons:


1. Firstly we need to understand what our learners already know. If we can link the new information to this, then we can reduce the burden on WM. Using multiple choice quizzes at the start of lessons can provide you with some information on this. Furthermore, knowing other things about your learners is always useful for analogies and metaphors.

2. Secondly we should try to chunk information so as not to burden the WM of learners (we can do this best following the above). This might include:

  • organising key concepts visually for learners in advance of the teaching (advanced organisers). For example, showing how the concepts/components of a topic relate to each other to form the whole.
  • breaking concepts down into their component parts (chunks) for delivery. For example, breaking a skill down into its simplest form before building each part together once mastered.
  • using mnemonics – further information can be found in a previous post here
  • using analogies and metaphors to help learners to link new information to prior knowledge. As mentioned above, the more we know about what our learners know, the more we will be able to link new learning to it. More information can be found here
  • using visual representations of things being explained, so that both the visual (visuo-spatial) and the auditory (phonological) information can ease the burden on the WM. See further information here

3. Finally, we need to be conducting regular formative assessment to ensure that we are monitoring the learner’s WM. We can then determine whether further support is required to address misconceptions, or whether we can move forward with additional learning. A post on formative assessment can be found here.


So when attempting to maximise the impact of your teaching, try thinking about getting a load of coins into a bottle*

*The astute of you may have noticed what I’ve done in this post…

6 thoughts on “Chunk

  1. Miller later admitted his 7 +-2 was a joke, the margin of error (5-9) was in no way scientific. He also came up with the number 7 after joining two separate pieces of research. The adulation he received over the following decades should make us all cringe.
    Cowan and chums (reference in the PinPoint I tweeted today) found the number was nearer 4 than 7. So much for our heroes.

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