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Chunking, within the context of learning and cognition, is an information encounter format through which content is divided into units which make the process of learning more cognitively manageable by engaging shorter episodes of material. It is important to note that chunking is both an information presentation style, meaning it can be delivered by an instructor; and an ability which the student, as a human, brings with them. The latter is thought to be impacted by previous experience and thus will interact with the former.
So chunking is thus mediated not only by dynamic student aptitudes, but by socioemotional and cultural/identity experience. Students will experience learning where, when, and how, they are able: what if we used chunking to make difficult-but-necessary subjects more bite-sized and accessible for culturally responsive learning?
Trigger warnings are appreciated, sometimes expected – but not beneficial
Consider a class in which part of the content arises and re-traumatises someone who has experienced trauma in the past. This concerns me, as a teacher and an empathic human being. I don’t want my students to experience trauma through the content of my class. Additionally, the term itself is unnecessarily violent – as if to introduce a firearm into our discourse. What we do with the pre-emptive warning is another question: is it an opportunity for some to avoid the content completely? Is it an invitation to experience the content with more hesitancy because the warning sets an expectation?
Without summarising all the literature for and against trigger warnings and for whom, I can share that I am sceptical of the efficacy of the trigger warning based on studies such as that conducted by psychologists Benjamin Bellet, Payton Jones, and Richard McNally. It’s mainly because if something is traumatic, and it must be part of your class, then it should be core content: something your students must learn about. If it is in there for shock value, or because maybe you like it, or some other arbitrary reason, then it shouldn’t be in there. As an example, I teach future higher education counsellors in a master’s programme. If we do not talk about race, colonisation, gender rights, sexual safety, and other issues of diversity and equity, then the students will not be ready when those issues present themselves as part of their future roles. This is also true for future attorneys, future spouses, future voters, future pet owners – anyone going into the future will deal with something trauma-related in their future job.
So, if going to university is even remotely about job preparation, some topics will cause stress. We want to cause a little eustress: the kind that stirs us to grow, to act, and to respond; and not trauma: the kind that paralyses and turns the classroom into an inaccessible place of oppression; at least not any more than it already was (and it already is, for some). Rather than take an ignorant approach, I want to repurpose the cognition and learning tool that we know as chunking for a new purpose.
What is chunking?
The idea of chunking originates in part from a 1973 study by William Chase and Herbert Simon using the game of chess: they built upon the work of Adriann de Groot in measuring the quickness with which chess experts could quickly visualise a complex pattern or situation based on just looking at the pieces in a given position, and understand its strategic importance. Chase and Simon’s finding made an impact on the psychology and educational communities in observing that beginners were nearly as good as experts when pieces were randomly dispersed.
Alexandre Linhares and Paulo Brum were able to show chess patterns which looked comparably similar to human subjects, but strategically different when analysed by computer, which shows there is a limit to the chess analogy being strictly positional on its face. Inherent in the finding is that someone looking at data needs not (and cannot) hold every possible aspect of the data in their working memory at one time but should be able to recognise patterns which give the data meaning.
It is important to note that where Stewart McCauley and Morten Christiansen identified previous experience, which they described in the context of measuring chunking for readers with varied reading experience, chunking as a student approach works in concert with chunking as information organisation and delivery from the instructor or instructional designer.
Chunking’s impact on student learning
I would argue that cognition is not accomplished in a vacuum: chunking may improve student learning through careful attention to health, culture, and identity responsiveness. Bruce Duncan Perry uses the example of trauma; in that it is shown to sometimes interfere among adult learners. He points out that ‘nearly one-third of the adult population’ have a history of having experienced trauma. If content is presented about something that relates to a student’s perception of trauma, and that content triggers a state of impaired data consumption (particularly, learning), the use of a reflection or check-in after a chunked component could help the student to process their personal experience of the material with immediacy and compassion. For example, in studying the history of land grant institutions of higher education, scholars like Margaret Nash note that the indigenous people of our nation have experienced a direct connection to the historic and ongoing oppression and genocide of their people.
Students whose identity is related to classroom material can react with anxiety, anger, defensiveness, and withdrawal, among other natural responses. Checking in, and the allowance of space in between potentially traumatic material to do so, can show students they are important, that they are safe, and that their individual experiences of the material are just as important, if not more so, as their cognitive recall of the material. Chunking allows for these check-ins and reflections to function as an immediate response to sensitive (but necessary) course material.
Taking a few brief moments to ask students to pair-up or breakout into smaller groups and reflect on how they are feeling, about the impact of the material on them, and about how they might respond, is not only a device to make the learning intrinsic: but to assure that our teaching spaces are as accessible as possible.
Andrew Byrne, PhD is an associate professor at the School of Education at California Polytechnic State University.
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