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The art of bite-sized learning

Astonishing and incredible yet irregular and unpredictable at the same time, the human memory is a funny thing.

Some pieces of information are readily available and can be plucked from the front of your brain at a moment’s notice. However, other facts or figures are buried deep within the recesses of your mind, which might be recalled after a few minutes or later on that day at random.

Simple questions such as ‘where are your keys right now?’ sound easy, but it might take a little bit of thought to remember when you had them last and their current location.

Even so, the complicated and complex nature of memory is often forgotten about when it comes to learning. This is despite the fact that if classroom teachers and corporate trainers consider how the brain acquires new knowledge, they will benefit from better learners and stronger outcomes.

The secret is bite-sized learning…


The shortcomings of memory

In their paper The “Change-up” in Lectures, Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish observed a polarity between the way lectures were being taught and how students learnt.

“Research tells us that the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science tells us of how humans learn,” they noted. “Research tells us that the brain does not record information like a videocassette recorder. Instead, it handles the volume of information by reducing it into meaningful chunks, that we call categories.”

So, it doesn’t matter whether students receive a 60-minute university lecture or an 8-hour corporate training session, new information and skills won’t be cemented in their memories unless it is broken down into easily consumable chunks.

Nonetheless, being concise enough to break down often intricate or elaborate learning materials into bite-sized periods of time is only one side of the coin. Students need a platform to execute their newfound knowledge; otherwise the classroom remains a passive learning environment.

“Once a concept has been introduced, students need an opportunity to practice thinking in terms of that concept,” say Middendorf and Kalish. “Right in a lecture class, you can ask students to generate their own example of the concept, summarise it, write an exam question for it, or explain it to someone else.

“This approach works with the mind’s natural processes, and thus improves learning compared to traditional lecture.”


Teaching intervals and implementation

So, obtaining new information in smaller doses and having the opportunity to demonstrate this knowledge soon afterwards can conquer the complexities of memory. But how small should ‘bite-sized’ teaching sessions be? And how can students put their learning into practice?

Well, the general consensus seems to be around the 15-20 minute mark, which is supported by Middendorf and Kalish. They reference a 1986 study, which is fairly indisputable and never seriously refuted, that revealed students zone out around the 15-minute mark.

As for implementation, students are much more likely to remember the topics or themes they have been taught if interactivity is given priority.

“A large body of literature tells us that when the goal is to foster higher levels of cognitive or affective learning, teaching methods which encourage student activity and involvement are preferable to more passive methods,” cite Middendorf and Kalish.

Therefore, give students consumable chunks of teaching with opportunities to demonstrate their new knowledge in an interactive way afterwards, and you will have achieved the art of bite-sized learning. However, that doesn’t mean to say students will be enthralled or captivated by your new teaching model, and herein lies yet another problem.


Managing to make training fun

Dr. Yan Tang, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has come up with a simple, fun, yet clever way to implement bite-sized learning and interactivity in the classroom. When teaching her students, she will take polls at carefully planned intervals, unsurprisingly every 15 minutes, to break up the lesson and assess levels of understanding.

“Many students don’t know what they know, and what they don’t know,” says Tang. For this reason, she carries out impromptu votes to make sure everyone is on the same page. This also tells Tang whether her teaching materials are having the desired effect too.

After the poll has taken place, students will often discuss the results, helping individuals gain different perspectives of the teaching while also being an active part of the session. Tang can then react to the student’s level of comprehension, going back over key concepts or moving on to another subject.

Due to Tang’s concise and collaborative approach, 95 per cent of students say they understand concepts more clearly. Tang also takes advantage of technology to facilitate stronger learning outcomes, which is ideally suited to students that have grown up alongside 21st century society’s digital revolution.

“In Dr. Tang’s class, periodically, we’ll stop and she’ll ask questions of the class, and I know a lot of other classes, there’s that weird, awkward pause and no one wants to raise their hand,” says Jameson Pietrowski, a mechanical engineering student. “It just comes up on the screen. It takes a lot of the pressure off.”


The art of bite-sized learning

Even though the human memory is a wonderful thing, it can also be rather frustrating at the best of times too. But in many respects, this is because of the way it has been taught or trained to remember pieces of information.

By taking a different approach to traditional classroom teaching and corporate training, such as reducing learning materials into meaningful chunks, the brain’s incredible ability to store and recall can be fully unlocked. However, students using the bite-sized learning model still need to demonstrate their knowledge acquisition for greater reassurance and recollection.

The most effective way of doing so is through interactivity, which gives students the opportunity to be active rather than passive. While interactivity is open to interpretation, allowing students to participate in learning between their bite-sized teaching intervals appears to foster impressive results.