January 15th, 2016

Goldilocks and the ‘Just Right’ Strategy for Helping Students Acquire New Content


Three college students

When Goldilocks visits the three bears’ house, she tastes the porridge they left out in the kitchen; papa’s porridge is too hot, mama’s is too cold, but baby bear’s porridge is “just right” for her. Believe or not, this notion of “just right” is meaningful to college professors as they prepare content for their classes.

Neuroscience research and what we know about how students construct new knowledge tell us that students need to acquire new content in digestible chunks. In other words, as we consider the content that we want to cover in a class, it is critical that we divide that content into chunks of information that students can receive and then engage with. This content may be delivered by a lecture, reading a section of a text, observing a demonstration or watching a video. Faculty who embrace a flipped classroom design will often deliver a chunk of information prior to class through a digital medium, such as a screencast or short video. Chunks that are too large overwhelm students and they aren’t able to retain the information. Chunks that are too small, lead to disinterest for students. However, chunks that are “just right” hold the promise of students acquiring, engaging, and then storing that information into memory. That process leads to learning.

As professors, what do we need to know to help us determine the “just right” size of chunk to deliver to students? Then, what strategies can engage students in the content in an effort to help them retain the information?

First, faculty need to have a strong command of their content and create a roadmap for how elements of the content can be delivered in a sequential manner that lead students to acquire the overall concept. Next, faculty need to pre-assess their students’ knowledge of the concept to determine where to begin instruction along their roadmap. Students’ depth of pre-knowledge will also serve as a guide as the faculty member decides the size of the learning chunk that they will deliver. The more students know about the content, the larger the chunk can be. The final determinant of the “just right” size of chunk factors in what we know about the human brain’s capacity for nonstop attention. Some of the literature in this area suggests that the adult brain attends, nonstop, for 15 to 18 minutes before it needs to stop and process information. The processing phase engages students in the content; in other words, it offers the student the opportunity to review and make sense of the information that has just been delivered.

As students actively process information, they are engaging in work that will allow them to retain information at a higher rate. Engagement can be structured as individual work, work in pairs or triads, or in collaborative groups. One example of individual engagement is a structure entitled, “clear and unclear windows.” In this activity, students write about what is “clear” about the learning they have just been involved in. This offers them the opportunity to review and summarize what they know. Additionally, they write about what is “unclear” for them about the previous learning. This helps students and faculty know what piece of the content needs further work.

An example of an engagement structure that could be employed with pairs or triads of students who are working to deepen their understanding of the content chunk is the creation of a Venn diagram where students have opportunity to compare and contrast how the chunk of information they just received overlaps with a previously learned concept.

Finally, a collaborative learning strategy that could engage students in thinking deeply together about the content could include an activity requiring the group to create a representation of the content by creating a metaphor or an analogy that aligns with the new content and then provide an explanation of the relationship. A benefit of the collaborative experience for students is that they have the opportunity, through discussion, to hear how the content is viewed from multiple perspectives.

When instructional design includes a “just right” chunk of information followed by an instructional engagement strategy, students have the opportunity to actively acquire and process information in ways that lead them to learning.

Karen S. Buchanan is a professor of education at George Fox University.

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