Focus on Instructional Design: Chunking

By chunking, we do not mean this:


Instead, “chunking” refers to a psychological principle whereby an instructor breaks up large amounts of information into manageable chunks. Studies have shown that people can only hold around 4 pieces of information in their short term memory at any given time. So any additional information is disregarded until these pieces are dealt with.

Proper chunking actually allows us to store more information in our short term memory. For example, the numbers “2” and “8” take up two spaces in our short term memory, but “28” only takes up one! So if you are giving someone your phone number which might be 555-1236, they are more likely to write it down properly if you give the last four digits as “12” and “36” as opposed to “1-2-3-6”. In fact, the very reason we have a hyphen “-” in a phone numbers is to chunk the numbers into three or four easily memorizable numbers.

This is an especially important in the online environment because students do not have the opportunity to stop and ask questions as they could in a face-to-face lecture environment. Therefore we have to make sure we are chunking information in such a way that they can process and move the information out of their short-term memory before moving on to the next “chunk.”

There are many ways to accomplish this in your online course. One example would be keeping videos between 5 and 10 minutes. It is better to have many short videos, rather than one long one. You can also break up your lessons by alternating between new information and a learning activity that allows the student to apply the new information. Ask one of our instructional designers about some creative activities that can be added to your course.

Web Readings:

Here are a few articles from around the web that have to do with chunking:

  • Wikipedia’s article on Chunking – This a “heavy” article on chunking but gives a lot of good background information and examples.

  • eLearning Coach post on Chunking – This article is much “lighter” and specifically focused on chunking for the online environment. It also gives some practical steps for chunking your information. Give it a good read, it is a short article.

  • Chunking Principle – I am including this article because I think the table is really good and offers some excellent ideas and examples. It is from a software company, but it shows you how pervasive this concept really is.

  • NY Times Chunking – This article does a great job of describing how are brains chunk language for faster recognition and understanding. It is a really good read.

  • Google Search – for those who are interested in more information about chunking, I would suggest doing a Google search for “chunking psychology”. There are a lot of interesting articles.

Posted in: Best Practice, Instructional Design

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