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Instructional Designer: eLearning Chunking Strategy Tips

Written by Lora Boiago | Jun 17, 2013 9:14:00 PM

As instructional designers, we’re always looking for new concepts that will lead to successful
learning experiences.  A main psychological phenomenon heavily practiced in the world of instructional design is information chunking. Chunking content is critical because of the way the human brain works.

What is information chunking?  How do they relate to memory?  How can instructional designers benefit from using chunking strategies?

Chunking Defined

Chunking refers to the strategy of breaking down information into bite-sized pieces so that human brain can easily digest the new information.  When information is organized and grouped together, it is making the most efficient use of our short-term memory.  When information is chunked into groups, the brain can process them easier and faster because our working memory, the area of our brain which manipulates information, holds a limited amount of data at one time.

Chunking and Short-Term Memory

George A. Miller first coined the term ‘chunking’ in his 1956 paper, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.  Here, he presented evidence that our working memory is limited in capacity and can only hold seven (plus or minus two) chunks of information at once.  This poses problems for instructional designers as they devise ways of explaining complex content while the learner must hold several factors in mind in order to understand the final picture.  This is where chunking plays a role.  Chunking is a useful way of overcoming these limitations by helping the learner memorize something complex, such as a 14-digit number, a list of letters, syllables or a course’s content.  Since smaller ‘chunks’ of information are easier to retain and recall, this strategy of ingesting information helps to almost double the capacity of the short-term memory.  For example, if you had to absorb a list of 11 numbers in your short-term memory you would likely have a difficult time.  However, by grouping the numbers together in chunks, the once arduous task will seem easier.  Imagine the following 11 digits: 18645557141.  You can break these numbers into chunks, such as: 1-864-555-7141. You will quickly create a mnemonic for these numbers as a long distance number.  When it is represented as such it becomes easier to remember.

eLearning Chunking Strategy Tips

Depending on the eLearning course’s content, there are many chunking strategies that can be used to break apart information.  Regardless of the chosen strategy, they all revolve around three major processes:

  • Classifying content based on importance
  • Grouping content into small portions
  • Maintaining a consistent working memory check


Classify and Prioritize eLearning course content

Starting your instructional design by separating what is important from what isn’t.  Refine your content so that relevant content sticks and irrelevant content doesn’t flood your learners’ working memory with useless content.  Less is more.


Group Content

Use your chunking strategy while determining the content hierarchy of a course.  Separate your eLearning course content into modules, lessons and then smaller topics.  Maintain a logical and progressive order as you do this.  This process follows a funnel-like process as you begin with the masses and work yourself down to the particulars.

  1. Content to Modules: Start with large chunks of conceptually related content and use these as your modules.  There are numerous organizational strategies to use during this stage, including simple to complex, alphabetical, cause and effect, sequential, etc. 
  2. Modules to Lessons: Divide modules into smaller related chunks and these will serve as your lessons.  Continue with this process until content is broken down to the topic level.  When you divide your eLearning course into topics and themes, your learner won’t feel lost in a sea of unrelated and seemingly irrelevant information. 
  3. Lessons to Screen: Once you have a solid module-lesson structure in place, a successful instructional designer should be cognizant of how the content appears on screen.  The content should have a rational flow, starting from basic and broad concepts and then progressively advancing into more complex ideas.  Each screen should consist of one chunk of related information.  Avoid presenting multiple topics at one time and support content with various resources, including images, video, audios, etc.  In fact, complementing any presentation with audio and video techniques increases retention rates and learner engagement.  See 16 Visual Presentation Techniques Used by Top Learning Consultants.


Keep the Working Memory in Mind!

Throughout the process, remember to think in terms of working memory.  Is all the content relevant?  Is there anything you can break down more?  As you consider this last question, ask yourself:  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 up.

If you have lots of unrelated facts that are pivotal to include, turn these bits of information into chunks.  Rather than breaking down the information, here you would chunk in the opposite direction.  Find a way to relate these bits to each other and connect them.  Use any strategy that will turn these individual bits of information until meaningful chunks.  Remember, working memory is just as willing to retain four chunks of information as it is to hold four bits of information.