What is “Chunking”? Why Does it Matter for Online Course Design?

“Chunks” might sound more like a way to describe your favourite chocolate bar than a useful learning strategy, but it actually relates to an important process in cognitive psychology. By taking complex materials and breaking them into smaller but related and well-organized elements (i.e., more “bite-sized” and “palatable”), you can design online course materials for more efficient application of your learners’ working memory, and improve the learning experience in your online class. In this post, I’ll cover a basic overview of what “chunking” is all about, and some ways we apply this strategy to online course design.

What is “Chunking”?

Chunking is a term that comes from the field of cognitive psychology and is related to information processing theory. The word is used to describe a process by which individual pieces of an information set are bound together into a meaningful whole. By organizing and grouping information into smaller but meaningful pieces called chunks, we can make more efficient use of our short-term or working memory, and are better able to encode that information into long-term memory for later retrieval.

A classic example is in learning and recalling a phone number. It’s easier for most people to remember a string of 7 digits when it’s broken into 2 discrete chunks, one of 3 digits (connected to a more familiar area code) and one of 4 digits.

As summarized by Fountain & Doyle (2012), the use of learning strategies that employ chunking techniques will:

    • decrease the amount of information that must be held in working memory by increasing the amount of information per chunk;
    • increase working memory capacity by reducing memory load; and
    • facilitate acquisition or recall by organizing long-term memory.

How Do You Apply Chunking to Online Course Design?

Chunking is a concept that instructional designers and e-learning developers are constantly making use of when we are arranging materials for asynchronous learners. We want to classify and prioritize the content, group it into efficient and “bite-sized” portions, and make sure it’s organized in a way that’s easy to navigate, sort through, and skim. In the following paragraphs, I’ll cover some ways to achieve this in your online course.

Classify and organize your content at a high level first. This means to start with a clear design plan or blueprint for your course, so that you understand the sequence and scope of the course week-to-week. In an online course, this usually means at the module level. Look also to your Learning Objectives — these can be a good signpost for where the chunking needs to happen. For example, a module with 5 Learning Objectives might chunk really nicely into 5 pages of content in your online course.

Go from modules into pages (or lessons), and then into topics (via headings and subheadings and paragraphs). Once you have this structure figured out and know how many pages you’ll be working within, then you can better chunk “at the screen level.” Here you can also take advantage of the cognitive separation that occurs when online course content is placed onto separate pages.

Use web design and graphic elements to break longer portions of content into smaller, related pieces on the page. Visually associate similar materials by using basic web design elements like horizontal rules and properly-formatted headings (H1, H2, etc.). Graphic elements like summary tables, reference images, or charts can also be used break up longer portions into smaller, more discrete chunks. Design elements like callout boxes or icons can also be helpful for visually separating any chunks of content that contain specific calls to action, and you might build tabs or accordions/spoilers to connect chunks of material that are closely-related but have important distinctions.

Think in terms of working memory as you lay out your learning materials, and avoid the endless scroll. Can you simplify the content? Shorten it? What can you cut? What is need-to-know, and what is nice-to-know? Can anything be moved to a “supplementary” or “optional” or “for more help” section? Are you still on topic, or have you strayed from your Learning Objectives? If your content under any one page is getting particularly long, you probably need to reconsider the organizational scheme.

Avoid the endless scroll, yes, but also avoid excessive “clickiness.” What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t place your content onto too many separate pages in the LMS. If each page just includes a few minutes worth of learning material, students will become frustrated and annoyed at having to hit the “Next” button over and over in quick succession to proceed through the module. Like the other side of the coin with excessively long pages, very short pages probably also means you need to reconsider the organizational scheme.

You can chunk video content too! For videos, consider breaking your longer videos into several shorter segments, using the “natural” breaking points in the topics you cover. The research varies, but generally agrees that when it comes to videos, shorter is better for learning engagement, with studies finding between 6-15 minutes as the ideal duration.  You can also use other chunking cues like chapter markers, or inserted interactive content (e.g., with H5P or Panopto Quizzes) to break up those longer videos.

Combine chunking with modality variation and active learning. Not every chunk of content needs to be the same format (e.g., all text, or all video). This is a good opportunity to change up the format (e.g., use one chunk of text followed by a chunk covered by a choice YouTube video) and also to reinforce chunks of learning materials with well-placed learning activities, like quizzes, practice questions, or class discussions.

Highlight the key takeaways and reiterate these with your chunking strategy. For example, if your module had 5 Learning Objectives, and you chunked that into 5 pages of learning materials, then likely you can summarize the module with 5 key takeaways. This will reinforce the cognitive structure that you are already scaffolding for your students with the design of your module. You can also activate this with some bolded text (a strategy I’m using here to make this blog post easier to read) or with some well-placed visual content (images, graphs, etc.).

Get students to do some chunking. Not all of the chunking work needs to be done by the instructor, and you might look for opportunities where learners can do some chunking work themselves, especially when you are having them analyze media from outside of your course. For example, you might send students to YouTube to watch a video, and then ask them in a follow-up exercise to summarize the video with 4-6 key points. Deciding how best to “chunk” a larger block of content is an excellent way to learn that material and identify the most important concepts and key takeaways.

Need More Help With Chunking?

An Instructional Designer can help with this, and we have have lots of experience in taking complex materials and making them more digestible for online learners. Reach out for a consultation or for some more in-depth assistance at deu.support@usask.ca.


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