Let’s be honest: most training does not transfer well into the “real world.” You can sit someone down and expose them to a rigorous 48-hour training session, and even if they ace the material, precious little might come of it.
The problem is exactly that traditional format where information is blasted at the learner in a marathon learning session. There’s a pile of psychological evidence that shows that learning works better in bite-sized pieces.
So, if you are, say, looking into how to train your employees, you will want to find ways to present the information not in marathon lectures, but in small pieces. Or, if you are building a learning library for your organization, you will want to make sure that your content can be delivered in small pieces to maximize its effectiveness.
But be warned: when we say “bite-sized,” we don’t mean simply whacking your content into little pieces. A thirty-minute YouTube video is not made more memorable by slicing it into 6 five-minute segments. When we talk about bite-sized learning, we mean something special:
Digestible Content: The “Bite-Sized” Part
One of the most robust findings in cognitive psychology is the upper limit of our working memory. Working memory is that short-term memory store we use to hold information while doing something, or trying to figure something out. Rehearsing a phone number until you dial it, remembering the step you’re on in a math problem, or keeping in mind the instructions for the task you’re doing all require working memory.
And our working memory has an absolute limit: we can hold onto 7 pieces of information, give or take 2. That's it. Try to retain more, and something is bound to get lost or scrambled.
So, if you are looking to create or purchase learning materials, this limit means something. Introducing more than 7 ideas, concepts, or examples is bad practice, simply because we don’t have the bandwidth to remember them, mull them over, and retain them over the long run. Any information you do present should consist, at most, of 7 pieces. (Notice that phone number, without the area code, are 7 digits long. This is by design: they are as long as they can be while still being easily remembered over short periods! Important in the days before smart phones.)
It also suggests that training materials should be linear: think videos and text over web pages with lots of links, or textbooks with lots of boxes, pictures, and side notes. Too many distractions means less ability to retain the important points.
Meaningful Content: The “Pieces” Part
“Wait a minute,” you say. “I do things all the time when I have to keep more than 7 things in mind!”
That’s probably true. You can recite all 26 letters of the alphabet, remember your 10 item to-do list, rehearse a presentation that’s 20 minutes long, and more. Here’s why: that 7 piece limit we’re talking about? It’s not a limit on individual facts or list items. It’s a limit on meaningful chunks. When you slap together several related pieces of information, what you get is a single “chunk” that is easier to remember than the individual parts.
Here’s a great example of chunking, adapted from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick. Without scrolling down, look at these letters and try to memorize them in 10 seconds:
LB JJ FK CI AF BI
If you’re like most people, this took some concentration. And if we tested you on these an hour from now, you would probably make some mistakes recalling them. That’s because what we have here is a series of random bits of information. Yes, these letters are separated into 6 pairs. But the pairs, and the letters themselves, are meaningless.
Now try this exercise again, but this time we’ll group the letter together a little differently:
LBJ JFK CIA FBI
Did you do a lot better this time around? We would bet money that you did. Why? In this case, even though each “chunk” was bigger, the letters together made a meaningful whole. You didn’t have to memorize three separate letters-- you just had to recall seeing the letters that were the initials for Lyndon B. Johnson, for example. Even more helpful, the trios themselves were related: two past presidents, and two federal agencies. Thematically, each piece “hung together” on its own.
What this means for corporate training and learning culture
So, when you’re looking into training format and training materials, keep the “bite-sized pieces” idea in mind. Training sessions should be short and focused on just a handful of ideas and/or examples. Training methods should minimize the number of tasks or distractions involved. And content should present a cluster or related ideas or concepts to facilitate remembering.
Do this, and something amazing begins to happen. As people get better at retaining information, they are encouraged to learn more and to put into practice what they’ve learned. And that’s the beginning of a true learning culture.