Chunking in Instructional Design

Chunking and sequencing are two of the most important steps of the instructional design process. They’ll result in a course layout that forms the foundation of every course. Let’s look into chunking and explore the ‘What, Why and How of chunking’. I promise that I’ll discuss sequencing in my next blog.

What is chunking?

According to Piskurich (2015), chunking is breaking down the content into pieces that are easy for your learners to digest. That doesn’t mean you simply cut up your content in parts. Bor (2012) refers to chunking as combining smaller bits of information into more meaningful, and therefore more memorable wholes. So, chunking is all about grouping pieces of information into more meaningful units (chunks) that will help the learner to absorb and retain the knowledge. Let’s start with an example.

An example

For an introduction course into communication skills, you could use the following four chunks:

  • What is communication: Sender, receiver, noise, message and feedback, encoding and decoding
  • Questioning: Open and closed questions, funnelling questions, probing questions, leading questions
  • Active Listening: Paying attention, providing feedback, being non-judgmental, asking for clarification responding
  • Non-verbal communication: Facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, touch, voice and posture
  • Why chunking?

    When we’re learning, we use our working memory to temporarily store information. Providing learners with too much content will result in a cognitive overload: the working memory has reached full capacity and can no longer absorb information. In that context, you might have heard of George Miller’s ‘The Magical Number Seven’ (1956). He said that a person can remember seven pieces of information, plus or minus two. Later research by Parker shows that it’s only four units (Parker, 2012). Parker even suggests that there might not be a limit to the storage capacity of your brain, but to the duration in which items can remain active in the working memory.

    If we use the human’s desire to see patterns and make the four pieces of information more structured and memorable (Bor, 2012), it will increase the amount of information we can retain in those four chunks. According to Bor (2012), our memory also becomes more efficient, effective, and intelligent than it could ever be without such refined methods to extract useful structure from raw data.

    Limiting the content to, preferably, four chunks, immediately raises the question of how big each chunk should be. I agree with Piskurich, who says it will depend. You could cover a second or third-level learning objective in each chunk or let time decide how much you can include. In my opinion, it will also depend on the target audience and the type of content. It also works well to end each chunk with some sort of practice, whether it’s a knowledge check, a reflection activity, or a scenario with questions. The practice will help the learner to retain the knowledge and move it to their long-term memory.

    How to chunk?

    There are different ways to chunk. You can chunk up, down, or use both methods.
    When you chunk down, you’ve got a certain topic and you break it down into smaller units that logically form meaningful chunks. For example, a course about the use of Microsoft Word. You could chunk the course content in ‘write and edit text’, ‘page layout’, ‘insert images and tables’ and ‘save and print’.

    Methods to chunk down

    One way to chunk down is to draw a large mind map with all the topics that come to mind. You can do this in a workshop with your Subject Matter Experts or stakeholders.  Another method I use to chunk down is to give the attendees in a kick-off workshop a set of sticky notes and ask them to write down which topics they think of should be included. Then you put all the sticky notes on a whiteboard and the overlapping answers show what they think is important to include. It’s helpful to give them different colours of sticky notes, so you can see how many people have come up with similar topics. The less mentioned topics are up for discussion. The next step is to combine these topics into meaningful chunks. So, you should finish the chunking process with four chunks and an overview of what’s included. See how that would look like for a course about Dog Care.
    In the image at the top you see the sticky notes with all the topics about dog care you can think of. In the image below you see the topics grouped into four chunks.

    Chunking up

    Sometimes you might need to chunk up, instead of down. For example, you’re asked to do a course refresh or combine various topics into one course. Then it helps to write down all the topics that should be included and chunk the content by logically grouping the topics. My go-to method is a whiteboard with sticky notes (can be a digital whiteboard too).

    Summary

    Chunking as part of instructional design is a process to group pieces of information into more meaningful units (chunks) that will help the learner to absorb and retain the knowledge. You can chunk down (most common), up, or go both ways to determine the best chunks for your course. Sticky notes and mind maps are useful tools to get your chunking process started.

    References

    Piskurich, G.M, (2015) Rapid Instructional Design, Wiley
    Miller, G. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
    Parker, G. (2012) Four is the ‘magic’ number
    Bor, D. (2012) The Ravenous Brain, Basic Books
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