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