“Bite-Size” to “Full-Size” Learners


Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centered around the Habits of Mind.

Daniel will be presenting on select topics in Special Education, Executive Functioning, & Habits of Mind. Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics to In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter – @HabitsofMindInc, Facebook, and LinkedIn. 



As Christmas approaches and children jingle with excitement, the thought of sugar cookies, gingerbread houses, and hot cocoa dance through their head. This is a season full of sweets, treats, and candy canes to eat. Candy canes? Yes, candy canes, always a delectable treat for kids, and in their minds “the bigger the better!” And, the thought of accruing a full-size candy cane, now that’s their ultimate success. Think about it, who wants a bite-size candy cane when you can have the full-size one? A proper, grown-up, full-size candy cane is a sign of completeness, one that satisfies, and fixes your craving in one sitting. But, is there something about this bite-size sweetness that makes it just as appealing? I mean a couple bite-sized equates to a full-size. It elicits an opportunity to build and acquire a taste for a new flavor…and variety. Plus, you can space them out and not engorge all at once, making the process more delectable over an extended period of time. Huh, which is better?

So, what’s the connection?

The bite-size and full-size candy cane analogy for this article serves to represent the ability to grow as learners and individuals in developing Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning skills. In anything we do in life the importance of improving our thinking capacity, learning process, and productive actions are critical. For some students the ability to master these skills comes naturally—they have a tendency to acquire, apply, and build upon them with success. Although for diverse learners this process can be complicated, frustrating, and difficult to put in play. No matter how hard they try these skills do not blossom or proliferate with a smooth transition. It takes work, consistency, commitment, and a bit of a bite-sized approach.

Bite-Sized Learning

When teachers infuse bite-sized learning into the classroom the idea is tailored for students to grasp and understand one objective/skill within a short interval of time. The rationale behind this strategy is quite simple: deliver morsels of information that stick instead of mountains of data that will escape the memory due to overload. When diverse learners experience this process the more inclined they will be in remembering the information/skill being taught.

Here are three key ingredients for conducting a successful bite-sized session:

  1. Thin slice it! Most students want to figure out one idea before moving on to the other. When diverse learners are given one concept to digest along with one change in behavior or thinking, bite-sized learning is accomplished!
  2. Engage the Clock! An optimal bite-size learning session ranges anywhere between 5 – 25 minutes. Remember just because a session is short there is no guarantee that students will stay with you through a boring activity, presentation, or discussion. So remember, engage students right from the start until the end. This is your time to captivate, excite, and impact students with the knowledge and a skill within a specific period of time.
  3. Chunk it out! When information is chunked into pieces learning is more easily retained while reducing cognitive overload. Here is a perfect chunked out plan:
    • Determine ONE learning goal
    • Determine the tasks related to this ONE goal
    • Identify content related to this ONE goal
    • Arrange content into bite-size nuggets
    • Figure out a way to check and assess the knowledge attained.

Building Habits and Executive Functioning Skills through Bite-Sized Approach

Transferring the bite-sized teaching and learning approach over to building Habits of Mind and Executive Functioning skills provides an opportunity for students to delve into productive actions and thinking within a shortened mini-lesson. A quick session focused on a habit of mind or executive functioning skill, connected with a current objective/goal, creates an opportunity for powerful engagement and learning. The decision of when to implement this approach is up to the teacher. It could be used at the beginning of class to stimulate thinking about the upcoming assignments, in the middle of class as a shift into new material, or at the end of class as a way to engage in reinforcement to an objective reviewed in class.

The style and method of the bite-sized approach is similar to the structure discussed above. Although, one big difference is that the focus will be on a blended objective—content and the habit of mind OR executive functioning skill of choice. In addition, the time will be decreased to anywhere from 5-15 minutes…simple, powerful, and applicable. Below are three examples of a bite-sized approach.

Snickers Commercial: Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations on Persuasion Techniques

  1. Thin Slice It!


Students will apply past knowledge to new situations by identifying an argumentative writing technique: Logos, Pathos, Ethos.

  1. Engage the Clock!

To make it exciting and impactful the activity will take place at the beginning of class to get students engaged and refresh their minds of the lesson from last class on Logos, Pathos, and Ethos (persuasion appeals). It will be a 10-minute bite-sized learning and habit building.

  1. Chunk it out!
    • A quick recap of the lesson from last class. Restate the three persuasion appeals: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Remind students about how they learned this last year but we are raising the bar with this concept.
    • Watch this commercial that depicts each persuasion appeal. Students will watch it twice and then write where each appeal shows up within the commercial.
    • Students will get with a partner and talk about their selections within the commercial. In addition, they will discuss their knowledge from last years learning of this persuasion technique to this year’s new understanding from watching the commercial—that is applying past knowledge to new situations.
    • Last we will watch the video again as a class and stop where the persuasion appeals are shown.

Global Climate Change: Communicating with Clarity and Precision on Climate Change Blogs

  1. Thin Slice It!


Students will communicate with clarity and precision in reference to building understanding of global climate change through an informative blog.

  1. Engage the Clock!

To make it exciting and impactful the activity will occur within the middle of class as a form of transition over to a new concept. This will be a way to get students engaged and refresh their minds of the lesson from last class on Global Change. It will be a 15-minute bite-sized learning and habit building.

  1. Chunk it out!
    • Quick reference the concept of Global Climate Change discussed last class. Show this 1-minute video to stimulate thinking and engage students in building their understanding of Climate Change.
    • Students will go to the NASA Global Climate Change website and read a selected blog. All students will take 4-minutes to read the blog.
    • Next students will turn to a partner and speak for a minute about the blog focusing on thinking and communicating with accuracy and precision. Their partner will listen and then paraphrase what they stated about the article.
    • The teacher will walk around and listen to each pair as a way to assess.

Vocabulary Review: Striving for Accuracy in Mastering Spelling and Definitions

  1. Thin Slice It!


Students will strive for accuracy in defining and spelling the unit vocabulary.

  1. Engage the Clock!

To make it exciting and impactful the activity will take place at the end of class to engage students in preparing for their unit vocabulary quiz the next day. The idea is to give students a sense of what words they know and others they need to focus on for studying purposes. It will be a 9-minute bite-sized learning and habit building.

  1. Chunk it out!
    • Independently each student will practice striving for accuracy in reviewing their vocabulary list. This will consist of full focus for two minutes without any communication with anyone in class – just them and the list
    • Next students will partner up for 4-minutes to quiz one another on the definitions and spelling of the vocabulary. Each partner will split roles—2 minutes to verbally quiz their partner on the definitions and spelling of words, and 2 minutes to respond to the definitions and spelling of the words.
    • The last three minutes will consist of the teacher asking for volunteers to state all the words and their definitions. This is a challenging, exciting, and optional activity for students to take a responsible risk while striving for accuracy in a safe and comfortable learning environment.

What’s the choice now?

When you take the bite-sized approach in anything you do in life the overall goal is to eventually work your way toward success. Ultimately a sense of completeness and conquer comes when we accomplish this feat. In the classroom when teachers take the opportunity to build upon learning through bite-sized approaches, it allows diverse learners to gain understanding, insight, and opportunity for self-assessment. They take incremental steps in growing their thinking capacity in reference to a topic and/or skill. And, eventually, when the overall goal is achieved, the celebration is even more rewarding.

So, when you grasp that full-sized candy cane in your hand at the next Christmas party think to yourself about the ultimate goal. Is it really that full-sized sweet I desire most, or is it the bite-sized one that will ultimately make the difference?


This post is part of a series. View the full Special Education series by Dan Vollrath here.

See all posts from Dan Vollrath.


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