Breaking it down

Welcome to Learning Event 3 (#LE3): Breaking it down

(Need more info about Learning Events in general? Visit the Learning Commons for a full description of this series.)

Learning Event 3 (#LE3) focuses on chunking course content, or breaking it down into smaller, bite-sized bits of easily digestible information. Chunking course content makes it easier for instructors to remain focused on what is most important, and for students to easily comprehend, learn, and commit content to memory.

Focus: Chunking refers to the strategy of taking something complex, and breaking it down into smaller, easier to understand pieces. Chunking strives for making more efficient use of short-term memory by grouping long strings of information into units or chunks. This process helps facilitate comprehension of content and retrieval of information.

Humans make sense of the world, and learn as they bring in sensory output from the world and pass it through three different structures of our memory system. Stimuli comes into the system through sensory output from the outside world, and is placed in our sensory memory. This is where our system quickly sorts out what to pay attention to..and what to ignore. A fraction of the information from the sensory memory then is passed on to our working memory. This is where our brain holds on to content that we’re actively working on, or thinking about. Some, but not all, information from the working memory is then passed on to our long-term memory. Our brains encode this information, and save it for later in mental structures known as schema.

Chunking originated with George A. Miller in 1956 as he considered the storage capacity limits of our working memory. Miller posited that seven may be the magical number as most people can only hold between four and eight things in their short term memory at one time.

This means that your working memory is the bottleneck in the learning process. It cannot hold lots of information, and it can only hold on to this information for a short period of time. If you overwhelm the working memory or fill it up, the learner will go into cognitive overload, and the excess information will just drop out or disappear. This means that if you are explaining something complex and the learner must hold several factors in mind to understand it, you will need to chunk information into bite-sized pieces.

Chunking of content separates the “need-to-know” information from the “nice-to-know” information in your course. Content chunking considers the screen size of devices, and types of content you share with learners. Lastly, chunking considers the organization of your curricular materials into a logical structure or flow.

If you have already organized your course content and are transitioning to an online format, identify what is “nice-to-know” and what is “need-to-know.” Remain focused on the course objectives you identified in LE1, and the final goals that you identified in LE2.

Be sure to talk with students about the changes being made, and provide opportunities to share how you see the parts of the course fitting together. This may include a video in which you walk through the components of your course and indicate how you see the chunks fitting together. Provide opportunities for students to reflect on how they see the chunks supporting the course objectives to make sure they see things the same way that you do.

Check out the materials presented below to learn and engage more!


Does this course make my content look big? The skinny on chunking content – Liz Crowell & Andrea Stone. “By focusing attention on organized modules, you are able to cover all the content you want to in a logical, natural progression.”

Content Chunking: The Basis To An Engaging And Well-Designed Course – eLearning Industry. “Content that is not chunked is hard to understand, assimilate, or retain. It boggles the mind, overwhelms the learner, and leads to cognitive overload.”

How to chunk training materials – Convergence Training. “Novices can work with four small chunks. Experts, on the other hand, can work with four larger chunks.”


Chunking: Learning Technique for Better Memory and Understanding (3:32)

Organizing Content Overview: Chunking Content (6:10)

Why chunking content is important. (2:10)


How can we organize course content and materials to help scaffold learners while building long term learning? 


Examine, review, possibly revise the activities and assessments for your course(s) to make sure they keep the end in mind.


There are generally four stages to chunking information in your classes:

  • Start at the top – Identify the most important content in your course, and make these your course modules. From there, there are numerous ways that you can organize the content that supports and connect these top level materials.
  • Divide modules into lessons – Your modules are your top level chunks of content. From there, break this down into smaller related chunks of content that will become individual lessons for classes.
  • Chunk at the screen level – As you break down content from the top level to modules, and then to lesson, consider the screen as a way to frame content for students. This means literally frame content as you only have the content needed for one chunk of content on the screen at a time.
  • Check yourself – Conduct a working memory check of the chunks of content you’ve assembled. Is it all necessary? If it is “nice-to-know” as opposed to “need-to-know,” get rid of it. Also keep in mind that your choice of visuals will impact working memory. This means that format (images, audio, video) can lessen the demands on working memory.

We would love to hear about what you created or implemented as a result of this Learning Experience! Please send an email to if you have something to share!