What is “Chunking”?

Chunking Information

Chunking for eLearning

As you move from teaching in the classroom to teaching online, you will begin to hear a lot about “chunking” your material.  But what is “chunking” and how can it help students retain information?

Chunking is a method of organizing your material into “bite-sized” segments to make better use of short-term (or “working”) memory.  Research has shown that when information is chunked into groups the brain can process (and retain) it easier and faster.  The term “chunking” was coined by George A. Miller in 1956, as he showed evidence that our working memory is very limited in its capacity.  At that time, Miller concluded that our working memory could hold approximately 7 bits of information, we now believe it is closer to 4 or 5 (depending on the type of information).

Why is this important to know when designing a course?  Because when a learner’s working memory is full, new information will just disappear.   This is one of the most important things we can remember when deciding how much information to present at once.  Therefore, before creating your course you need to ask yourself a few questions:  1)  What objectives are really important (what are the “Big Ideas” of the lesson)?  2) How much and what exactly should appear on the screen?  3)  What kind of strategies can I use to group information?  Separate the wheat from the chaff; know what is really important and what can be left out.  Too much unnecessary information will overwhelm the working memory.

One of my favorite instructional design resources is an educational blog site called “The ELearning Coach”.  Author Connie Malamed offers some great tips for chunking your lesson,  listed here:

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 How to Organize 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.

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.

How about you- have you used chunking techniques with your lessons?  Tell us about it!

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