Curriculum Planning

How to Use Chunking in the Classroom

Chunking information—breaking it down into manageable units and scaffolding it with activities—makes learning more accessible.

January 22, 2024
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There’s no debating that technology has changed, and continues to change, the ways we teach and learn. It allows for the immediate download of information and has inundated our lives. But despite this increased access, students still need quality processing time to understand manageable chunks of information and to fully comprehend it at a higher level.

Teachers, too, are grappling with larger volumes of information; sometimes, it feels like the amount of academic content we are expected to teach increases every year. But the amount of time we have to teach does not. So how do we keep teaching large amounts of content, at high levels, without having more instructional time? 

One process that I have found useful is chunking, the breaking down of content into subunits. This strategy is tried-and-true, but to make it new and even more effective, I pair it with processing-time activities to allow students space to acquire and understand advanced content. Here’s how. 

Chunking Content in the Classroom

To effectively chunk curricular information and ensure that students have time to digest and process it, be intentional about incorporating wait time (i.e., processing time) into lecture-based classes or direct instruction. 

Wait time is a term that usually describes the quiet time that teachers allow after posing a question to the class, during which students can think and talk about their ideas before receiving an answer (or follow-up question) from their teacher. 

But processing time is not just about verbal participation. Instead, when inserted during direct instruction, it allows all students to process the content to which they were just exposed and to make sense of and digest it before encountering additional volumes of information. 

Processing time can take many forms. For example, you might ask students to complete a short writing task in which they explain the information that you just taught, but in their own words. Or they might use the time to exchange and compare their understandings with a peer, or to complete content-based puzzles or other manipulatives. 

Games and activities that allow students to talk and move around the room invoke multiple learning modalities and better engage all learners, providing them with multiple ways to make meaning of the curricular content. 

To that end, I have found that puzzles, especially, can be a great way for students to process information while also building important and transferable problem-solving and persistence skills. In today’s world of immediacy, students are not always used to taking time to work toward and find a solution. But content-based puzzles often require intense focus for an extended period of time—a trying and retrying of problem-solving strategies. When you pair students to work on these types of puzzles, students also build collaboration skills and work together for a common goal—necessary in work and life contexts far beyond the classroom.

Using Station Rotation to Promote Cognitive Processing

Station rotations are another great way to allow students of all ages to move around the classroom and to spend intentional time processing small chunks of instructional content. 

Stations can comprise a paragraph-writing prompt, a math or science problem that needs to be solved, or even historical or societal issues that students contemplate alone or together. In my classroom, I use this approach for all sorts of content—from writing and naming compound formulas, to stoichiometry problems, to small lab activities. 

Processing time is built into these practices. They allow students to move on to the next station on their own time. In your teaching, make sure to point out to students that they shouldn’t leave a station until they understand its content—perhaps writing a summary of their understanding in a notebook or sharing it verbally with a peer.

Peer Sharing

Pairing students for sharing activities is another way to support processing time. In pairs, every student  participates, and nonparticipation is easily detected and corrected. You can pair quieter students with someone they know and trust. 

Whole class discussions sometimes devolve into scenarios where only a few students participate, or all students try to participate at the same time. But when students are paired, every voice has time and space to be heard, which can feel more inclusive and welcoming, especially to students who are not always willing to participate. 

Aiding Knowledge Acquisition 

When we take these types of intentional instructional approaches and prioritize processing time in the classroom, especially in moments when our teaching relies on direct instruction, we allow students more freedom to acquire knowledge—and to truly understand that knowledge before they’re forced to move on. Such an approach can help prevent content gaps and can support differentiated instruction for all learners, making space for students to find multiple ways into their understanding of our lessons. 

As educators, we often discuss wait time, but we do not use it as effectively as we could. Chunking content and using processing activities in the classroom allows us to create on-ramps to more challenging content. These scaffolds lead to deeper student understandings and ready learners for even more content, making teaching and learning more meaningful and efficient—critical in an information-heavy era.

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