Chunky Learning

Content chunking involves organizing information in “chunks” so that it’s easier for learners to digest. Instead of memorizing multiple concepts, online learners are able to analyze each concept thoroughly and absorb the content, one bite at a time. Once they’ve assimilated the content, they move onto the next concept.

Chunking stems from the field of cognitive psychology. Science indicates that our working memory can only hold a finite number of items, and when it reaches full capacity, we experience cognitive overload.

However, organizing the information into chunks takes stress off the mental pathways, making it easier to remember the learning concepts. Chunking learning content allows the instructor to define an objective and then organize the content, activities, assessments, and other learning tools in segments that support the objective.

How can an instructional designer apply chunking in course design?

1. Make sure the course begins with specific goals and objectives. Well-designed objectives are the keystone of each chunk. Canvas makes this very easy with their Module-based design. 

2. Stay within the limits of cognitive capacity. According to science, our brain can only process 3-5 pieces of information at a time. It’s like memorizing a telephone number. Our mind can remember 205-251-1587 easier than 2052511587. 

3. Create a content map during the design phase. This allows you to categorize your content and break it down into relevant modules. Instructional designers create a list of the desired outcomes or goals, then list 3-to-5 related concepts for each. Each concept should tie into the learning objective. The next step is gathering all relevant assets, including eLearning activities, online assessments, and multimedia. Finally, organize the content by how they fit into the big picture and support the learning outcomes.

As I mentioned earlier, the Module concept is one of the great features within Canvas. (Northwestern University’s sample course is an excellent example of chunking.) Instructors can organize content based on the module goals and objectives, students are able to locate content with ease, and it helps the student see how the connection between concepts.
In my experience as an online learner, some classes really stimulated my mind and I retained the information. I also had classes that were nothing more than memorizing information for a test. It’s no surprise that the former course design was based on chunking, and the latter was more like ‘dump truck design’. (Yes. I just invented that phrase.) Essentially, the instructor backed up the truck and dumped all the information on the students. No discussions. No relevant structure. Just information in large quantities.
If you want to learn more about chunking, check out the links below.

You can read more and view examples of designing using content chunking on the Nielsen Norman Research Group site.

George A. Miller’s Information Processing Theory