Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills

Posts in this series…

1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading
6. Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond

In this post, most of the referenced studies are from multimedia learning (educational videos) and special education contexts. However, the findings from the studies should transfer over to general education. The multimedia studies should transfer because they were looking into how segmenting a video impacts learning, this is very similar to how segmenting instruction would impact learning. The special education studies looked at effective teaching methods for learning disabled students, which should have an obvious transfer to students in general education. That said, if you know of any research on segmenting content/skills in a classroom context, please send them my way!

The Segmenting Effect

The segmenting effect states that students “learn better when multimedia interactions are presented in meaningful and coherent learner-paced segments, rather than as continuous units” (Mayer & Pilegard, 2014). I should note that in this context, learner-paced means something significantly different than what we would typically think. Learner-paced is only talking about the multimedia interaction, the assignment. In practice, this would involve some sort of pause or rewind function, allowing the student to rewatch and stop the presentation as needed. So, learner-paced only applies to the pacing of the assignment, not to the pacing of the curriculum.

Explaining the Segmenting Effect

  1. Segmenting gives students more time to mentally organize the information they are taking in. Giving them a chance to integrate it with preexisting knowledge.
  2. Continuous presentations may cause cognitive overload
  3. Segmentation may be more beneficial for novices than experts. Novices need more breaks (segments) because they lack a developed schema. Segmentation may have negative effects for experts (Spanjers et al., 2011).
  4. Experts may benefit from self segmenting their studies (Spanjers et al., 2010).

A meta-analysis found that segmenting improved both retention (45 out of 67 studies, 67%) and transfer (34 out of 56 studies, 61%) performance. It also found that, commonsensically, segmenting takes more time. In addition, learners with high levels of prior knowledge experienced greater benefits from segmenting than learners with low levels of prior knowledge. The meta-analysis also found that transfer performance was not impacted by prior knowledge (Rey et al., 2019). A study by Agarwal also found that factual knowledge did not impact transfer (2019).

An additional interesting finding by Rey et al. was that system paced segmenting (no learner choice) improves retention and transfer in addition to reducing perceived cognitive load, whereas learner-paced segmenting only led to an increase in transfer. This finding is easy to apply to the classroom.

Segmenting Instruction

Teachers should segment their lessons and provide students with “breaks” instead of allowing students to work and self-learn. What I mean by this is that we should teach something, and then, shortly after, stop the “teaching” and give students a chance to think about what they just learned.

For example, let’s say you are teaching about the rock cycle, and your students just learned weathering and erosion.

Teacher: “Ok, weathering means breaking rocks. Erosion means moving rocks. Chalk is a rock”
*grabs a piece of chalk and snaps it in half
“Ok, using our vocabulary words, what happened to the rock?”
Students: “Weathering!”
Teacher: “How do you know?”
Students: “It broke.”
Then you can draw a line by moving the chalk back and forth, heavily across the blackboard.
Teacher: See the small pieces of chalk falling down? What is that?”
Students: “Erosion?” “Weathering?”

At this point, some students will likely focus on the wrong part of your demonstration or example (regardless of what content/skill you are teaching). So, here you get specific and correct misconceptions immediately.

Teacher: “Weathering and erosion are BOTH happening in this example. But remember our definitions. Check your notes. What is weathering?”
Students: “Breaking rocks.”
Teacher: “Good! And what is erosion?”
Students: “Moving rocks.”
Teacher: “Excellent!” *resumes heavily drawing the chalk line. “Now, see the small pieces of rock falling down? What is that?”
Students: “Erosion!”
Teacher: “Perfect! Now, what is happening to the chalk when I rub it across the blackboard?”

And on and on.

While this process looks rather long and drawn out on paper (or the web) it is actually a fast paced, snappy exercise that only takes a minute or two. Using choral response is a quick, efficient way to segment your teaching, allowing students to integrate their new learning with their prior knowledge.

Since we all want our students to be able to apply what they are learning to their lives, we should give our students many differing examples, and many opportunities to apply their learning to different contexts. Research has found that exposing students to differing examples of the same concept helps them transfer their learning (Jacobson et al., 2020).

More Examples, More Transfer

After my students have a basic understanding of the key terms and their applications, I branch into more examples to help them generalize (transfer) their learning, often using short videos. I would then end this segment of class with  a similar routine of choral response and think-pair-share.

Teacher: “The mud sliding down the mountain is an example of…”
Students: “Erosion!”
Teacher: “Good! And when that rock crashed into the other rock and exploded, it was an example of….”
Students: “Weathering!”

Immediately following the choral response, I would shift into a pair-share (the think part was ~completed in the choral response and all students will at least know the answer, if not the explanation). The purpose for the immediate shift is to keep momentum going and build anticipation. I would have students explain to each other why one part was weathering and why the other was erosion. Then I would conclude this segment of instruction by having several students share their answers, followed by me clearly and succinctly restating or correcting their answer to the class.

Digging Deeper and Building Up

As we dig deeper into the concept of the rock cycle, we will add complexity to weathering and erosion. For example, we may dig into how the material affects the rate of weathering and erosion. Or we may explore how the volume of the weathering/erosive agent affects the rate of weathering and erosion. And as we add complexity, we are always referring back to what was learned previously. This helps make learning cumulative, gives students practice with a diverse array of examples which helps them transfer their learning, and it cements previous learning (ideally to the point of automaticity).

As you can tell by the previous paragraph, segmenting isn’t just something that you should take into account within your lesson, it ought to be taken into account throughout your unit planning. And actually implementing segmenting into your instruction will take time, meaning you will likely cover less content. But, the research shows your students will likely learn and retain more of the content/skills than otherwise. In addition, you can use strategies like choral response and think-pair-share to make the segments an effective use of time.


Agarwal, P. K. (2019). Retrieval practice and Bloom’s taxonomy: Do students need fact
knowledge before higher order learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 111, 189-209.

Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222

Mayer, R. E., & Pilegard, C. (2014). Principles for managing essential processing in multimedia learning:segmenting, pre-training, and modality principles. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2nd ed., pp. 316–344). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rey, G. D., Beege, M., Nebel, S., Wirzberger, M., Schmitt, T. H., & Schneider, S. (2019). A Meta-analysis of the Segmenting Effect. Educational Psychology Review31(2), 389–419. doi: 10.1007/s10648-018-9456-4

Spanjers, I. A. E., Van Gog, T., & VanMerrienboer, J. J. G. (2010). A theoretical analysis of how segmentation of dynamic visualizations optimizes students’ learning. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 411–423.

Spanjers, I. A., Wouters, P., Gog, T. V., & Merriënboer, J. J. V. (2011). An expertise reversal effect of segmentation in learning from animated worked-out examples. Computers in Human Behavior27(1), 46–52. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.05.011