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Center for Health Literacy Promotion Blog

Promoting Health Literacy with Beginnings Guides Part 11: Chunking information for Easier Recall

Did you ever play the party game where multiple items are displayed on a tray; everyone gets to look at the tray for one minute, then the tray is removed and you write down as many items as you can remember?
No one remembers more than seven items
That is because of the way the brain processes information. Earlier in this series we said the purpose of the cover, is to attract the readers’ attention. When it does, the reader’s mind very rapidly decides to activate memory and process the information. Or not.
Assuming the reader decides to pay attention - the information goes to short term memory. If you’ve played the “What’s-on- the- tray?” game, you probably noticed that short-term memory has very limited capacity and short storage time. In a bright mind on a good day, short term memory holds seven items. It lasts less than 1 minute. For many, especially those with low literacy and high stress, it holds less. And here’s the thing: the more items on the tray, the less you remember. When short-term memory hits capacity, it dumps everything.
Chunking prevents over-taxing short term memory
The parlor game is easier when the items on the tray are organized -- ”chunked” into groups of related items. Chunking helps the mind associate the items with something it already knows. Association gives the brain a place in to put the information in long-term memory, so you can recall it.  Maybe the tray contained kitchen utensils (spoon, can opener, peeler), bathroom items (toothbrush, comb, soap) and writing implements (pencil, pen, marker). These chunks are easier to think about than a bunch of stuff.
It’s the same with printed information: use subheads to chunk a list of items into logical groups that link the information to something the reader already knows.
SAM says that in Superior health education materials, lists are grouped under descriptive subheadings with no group having more than five items.
The Beginnings Parent’s Guide’s  Home Safety Checklist for infants up to 12 weeks old in the is a good example. It’s on page 25; take a look.  The instruction is divided into four chunks: fire safety, sleep safety, burn safety and air safety. Each chunk covers one to three items. In addition to increasing comprehension, this chunking makes the checklist look and feel do-able.
Next: Learning Stimulation
Resources: Doak C, Doak L & Root J. (1996).Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills. 2nd edition. Philadelphia, Lippincott.  NB: Find it free online thanks to Harvard School of Public Health
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