This week, I’m going to discuss the term chunking, and how it plays into the world of what I would consider good Instructional Design.
Chunking is the process wherein complex information is broken down into smaller, more palatable pieces of information. I understand this verb could be used for something that occurs after a long night of drinking and I’d like to think that the outcome is similar. It’s a concept that came to existence in and around the 1950s when its inventor (George A. Miller) argued that our working memory can only do so much, and how true that is!
Like Miller, cognitive load theory dictates that the volume of information and interactions, of which the learner is presented, is directly correlated to feelings over being underloaded or overloaded. For example, compare a first year university intro class versus a fourth year university class – here you can easily see that the former is likely less of a workload versus the latter. Another great example is to think back to the days of Geocities and Angelfire (bonus points if you’re a kid of the 80s, whose formative years were in the 90s boy-band era) and ALL of the images that took forever to load on your 14.4k modem, the auto play midi background music and the marquee banners. Were you able to focus on the content? Probably not. Believe it or not, there are still a lot of educational sites that resemble this format…in 2014, but I digress.
Why Should I Care About Chunking?
As an Instructional Designer, educator, or even writer, it is CRITICAL to chunk material, especially if the goal is to have the end user retain information. Or maybe you’re a business owner or training and development coordinator transforming source materials (e.g. new hire training) into a larger presentation – while perhaps not your usual task, you must understand the importance.
Chunking information allows for enhanced retention, which will likely yield a more productive and efficient operation – your team will run like a (more) well-oiled machine if they can process the information presented in a meaningful way. If you just toss all of the information in one pot without creating smaller segments (or chunks), you’ll likely notice that your learners have become withdrawn from their tasks or seem to have forgotten all of the information you worked hard to present. Why? Well, cognitive load theory would indicate that your learners are overwhelmed and overloaded with information, and they just can’t process it effectively. This is bad when you need your target audience to recall the information for use at a later time.
Connie Malamed provides a great explanation of why content should be chunked. She explains the history behind the concept and identifies methods for chunking content, so please check it out if you need more information!
Basically, you can choose not to care about chunking your material, but don’t say you haven’t been warned. The goal to creating a successful learning experience should always be focused on the student and their ability to achieve your learning objectives, so please take the time to consider the concept of chunking further if you want to achieve optimal student achievement and satisfaction!