If we ran a contest for the favorite in instructional design, the term “chunking” might win. It’s a concept we use frequently in both instructional and information design. Chunking content is critical because of the brain’s cognitive architecture. For a quick review, see 10 critical facts about the brain.
Chunking refers to the strategy of breaking down information into bite-sized pieces so the brain can more easily digest new information. The reason the brain needs this assistance is because working memory, which is where we manipulate information, has a small capacity and a short duration. Chunks reduce the load on working memory.
Why We Chunk Content
George A. Miller formulated the chunk concept in 1956, as he presented evidence that working memory is limited in capacity. Although Miller stated that working memory could hold seven (plus or minus two) chunks of information at once, it is now thought that the number is closer to four, maybe five bits of information. Also, cognitive researchers now know that the capacity of working memory depends on the type of information, the features of the information and the abilities of the person under experimentation.
The pearl of wisdom here is that if a learner’s working memory is full, the excess information will just drop out—as in disappear. That’s a big challenge for a course designer. It means that if you are explaining something complex and the learner must hold several factors in mind to understand it, you’ll need to chunk information into bite-sized pieces.
Chunking Information for eLearning
Chunking information is particularly important for online learning. Without an instructor to answer questions and to guide the learning process, eLearning content has to be organized in a logical and progressive way through chunking. Chunking doesn’t only work for your typical linear instruction, it also works for learning objects, for non-linear approaches to learning as well as discovery learning, because it groups together conceptually related information. Content that is conceptually related is meaningful, making it easier to understand.
Four Steps to Chunking Information
Now that we can proudly say our working memories are basically sieves, what strategies can eLearning designers implement to overcome this?
Step 1: Start at the highest level.
Use a chunking strategy while determining the content hierarchy of a course. Determine how modules, lessons and topics will be organized into a logical and progressive order.
Start with large chunks of conceptually related content and use these as your modules. There are numerous organizational strategies, such as simple to complex, cause and effect, sequential, etc. See 10 Ways to Organize Instructional Content for more on this.
Step 2: Modules into lessons into topics.
Divide modules into smaller related chunks and these will become your lessons. Continue with this process until content is broken down to the topic level. As you become more familiar with the content, fine tune the internal structure.
Step 3: Chunk at the screen level.
When you have a solid module-lesson-topic structure, organize the content so each screen consists of one chunk of related information. Depending on how you design, this could be at the topic level, at the detailed learning objective level or at the concept level. As a guiding rule, avoid introducing multiple topics, learning objectives or concepts at one time.
Step 4: Do a working memory check.
Throughout the process, think in terms of working memory. Do you really need to include all the content you have in front of you? If not, get rid of extraneous content. Less is more. See 20 Facts You Must Know About Working Memory.
Will the chunk of content require the learner to hold more than a few things in memory at one time in order to understand it? If so, break it down again. Fortunately, the visuals and text in multimedia courses can lessen the demands on working memory.
What if you have lots of unrelated information?
Turn Bits into Chunks. If you have lots of unrelated facts, it’s possible that this is extraneous content and you don’t need it. If you are certain these unrelated facts need to be included, find some way that they relate to each other and connect them.
In this situation, you have to chunk information in the opposite direction. Use any strategy that turns individual bits of information into meaningful chunks. Perhaps an analogy or metaphor will work.
Working memory is just as willing to hold four chunks of information as it is to hold four bits of information. For example, you can remember four letters as well as four words. By finding ways to group together small bits of information into a chunk and you’ll help learners process more at one time.
For more on this topic, see: How does chunking help working memory?
George Miller’s milestone article from 1956: The Magical Number Seven.