Home > Blog Feed > What is Chunking and Why is it Important for Your Online Course?

What is Chunking and Why is it Important for Your Online Course?

Part 1 of a 3-part series on how to supercharge your online content! Learn how to make your online course easier to follow by leveraging three simple design techniques: chunking, developing clear goals, and adding visual aids.

This article is part 1 of a 3-part series where I walk you through a step-by-step process to take your online course content from a “wall of text” to a supercharged, easy-to-digest format.

Part 1: What is Chunking and Why is it Important for your Online Course?
Part 2: Goals are the Guide to Learning
Part 3: Visual Aids

Goals of this Post

  1. Understand that chunking is breaking something large into smaller pieces
  2. Understand one strategy for chunking — from general to specific
  3. Understand how to apply this strategy to online course content

What is Chunking?

In the simplest terms chunking is breaking down something large into smaller, more manageable pieces. In the book Supercharge Your Professional Learning, the authors describe chunking as a “technique [that] can offset cognitive load and enable participants to retain more information because seemingly disparate pieces of information are grouped into smaller, more conceptual chunks” (Derbiszewska & Tucker-Smith, 2020).

So, what does this look like? Let’s say you baked a tray of brownies. You wouldn’t attempt to eat the whole tray in one sitting, would you? Of course not. You would cut the tray into smaller pieces and slowly eat those pieces throughout the day until eventually you consume the whole tray. What? I can’t be the only one…right?

Several square slices of chocolate brownies.
A tray of brownies that has been “chunked” into smaller pieces.

Or, let’s consider your favorite book. Books aren’t written as one long, unbroken piece of text. Most books are presented in chapters as a way to logically organize content. Those chapters are further broken down into paragraphs and sentences that help to guide the reader along through the story.

Inside of a book that shows text chunked into separate sections.
The inside of a book that shows chunked content.

What about Lego sets? When was the last time you put together a Lego set? Modern Lego sets are superb at chunking instructions in order to make the process super clear to the builder. They don’t just throw hundreds of pieces at you and tell you to start building. The instructions are well organized and guide the builder through the process of building an entire set by breaking the larger build down into many small steps. They even group the pieces together into separate bags for major sections of the build. So, for those larger sets, you’re not left sifting through hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny pieces looking for that one piece — something we definitely don’t want our learners to experience in our online courses!

A completed Lego set of a monster truck that is roughly the size of an apple. You can see the instruction booklet in the background that illustrates one step of the build process.
A completed Lego set and the instruction booklet that shows “chunked” steps.

So, now that we have an idea of what chunking is, what would it look like for your online course? Let’s get started!

Our “Unchunked” Online Course Content

In the following example we’re going to imagine that we are creating an online course that aims to explain the game of baseball. Not interested in baseball? Perfect! This is a great example to see if we can take something that you are not interested in learning and, by the end of this 3-part series, make it clear and engaging for you — something that we inevitably have to tackle with our students from time to time. And if you are a fan of baseball, you should hopefully find this enjoyable. Let’s go Cubs! :)

The first module should start with a big picture and explain the overall basics of a baseball game. Content that hasn’t been “supercharged” with chunking might look something like this:

The Flow of a Major League Baseball Game
A major league baseball game consists of at least 9 innings of play during which two opposing teams compete to score the most runs. An inning of baseball is composed of two halves referred to as the “top half” and the “bottom half.” The two teams take turns playing offense (batting) and defense (on the field) each inning. The away team plays offense in the top half, while the home team plays offense during the bottom half. The offensive team has three outs to score as many runs as possible during their half of the inning.
There are many ways to record an out, but to begin we will focus only on general and the following three are the most common: when a batter strikes out, when a batter hits a fly ball that is caught, or when a player is thrown out while running the bases.
Once the defensive team records three outs, the players swap between offense and defense and begin the next half of the inning. Once an inning is complete, a new inning begins with the same pattern until the teams have played at least 9 innings. If the game is tied after 9 innings, the teams continue to play extra innings until one team scores more runs than the other and is declared the winner.

This is a lot of information to unpack for someone that we have to assume has very little knowledge of baseball. How can we make this content more clear and easier to understand by using chunking? Let’s take a closer look at one chunking strategy and chunk our content starting with the big ideas and then move into the finer details — from general to specific.

Chunking Strategy: From General to Specific

Let’s start by pulling out the high-level information into four separate chunks.

  1. the overall structure of at least 9 innings,
  2. the structure of each individual inning,
  3. the structure of a half inning, and
  4. what an out is and how they are recorded.

Order Matters: Chunking from General to Specific
The above content chunks start with the “big picture” and then move into the finer details — from general to specific. Using this method the learner has context for each new piece of information that is introduced to them.

Graphic that shows an upside down triangle to represent the way we have chunked our content. We start with the general (the base of the triangle) and gradually move into the finer details (the tip of the triangle).
Image of an upside down triangle where general information is shared before specific details are shared.

Why is this important? Let’s again consider Lego sets. The order of instructions is extremely important to successfully complete a build. If you do the steps out of order you are less likely to succeed. The Lego designers know this and have devoted a lot of thought into the instructions and organized them in a way so that each successive step builds upon the previous step. The design of the instructions is integral to your success.

Now consider how we design online content. In our baseball example, you wouldn’t want to start explaining what an out is before letting the learner know why it is important. If you go back to the original draft at the top of this article you’ll see that we made that mistake. We first introduced the structure of an MLB game, then we talked about outs, and finally we explained that outs are part of an inning. The problem with this is that the learner has very little context of what an out is and why it is important at the time we introduce it. By rearranging the chunked content from general to specific, we help guide the learner into the finer details so that each new chunk of information either builds on, or is contextualized by the previous chunk.

Chunking Our Online Course Content

Now that we have our chunks and a strategy in mind, let’s revise our content. We’re also going to use headers to help the reader differentiate between each chunk.

The Flow of a Major League Baseball Game (version 2)
An MLB game consists of at least 9 innings
A major league baseball game consists of at least 9 innings of play during which two opposing teams compete to score the most runs. If the game is tied after 9 innings, the teams continue to play extra innings until one team is declared the winner by scoring more runs than the other team.
Each inning has a top half and a bottom half
An inning of baseball is composed of two halves referred to as the “top half” and the “bottom half.” The two teams take turns playing offense (batting) and defense (on the field) each inning. The away team plays offense in the top half, while the home team plays offense during the bottom half.
Each half of an inning is played until the defensive team records 3 outs
During their half of the inning, the offensive team has three chances — referred to as outs — to score as many runs as possible. Once the defensive team records three outs, the players swap between offense and defense and begin the next half of the inning. Once an inning is complete, a new inning begins and follows the same pattern until the teams have played at least 9 innings.
Each batter represents an opportunity to record 1 out
Each half inning is played until the defensive team records 3 outs against the offensive team. There are many ways the defensive team might record an out, but in general the following three are the most common:
1) When the pitcher “strikes out” the batter
2) When a batter hits a fly ball that is caught in the air
3) When a player is thrown out while running the bases.

Now that the content is chunked it is more clear and easier for the learner to follow. We have taken the major ideas, separated them into chunks, and presented them so that they flow from one idea to the next. We start with the general idea of the structure of an MLB game, and then delve deeper into the specifics of innings and outs — again, from general to specific.

Notice that some of the original content is also revised. Conceptualizing your content into chunks can aid you as the creator / writer to better explain your content to the learner. So, don’t be afraid to revise your original content once you have it chunked!

Chunking Helps to Guide the Learner Through Your Content

When chunking your content, think of your learner as an inexperienced pilot that is preparing an airplane for landing. What is the best approach to guide your learner so that they can make the transition from flying at 30,000ft to successfully landing on the runway? You can’t make the leap from 30,000ft to successfully landing the plane instantly — it takes time and often several maneuvers to land a plane. Design and chunk your content in a way that conceptualizes the big picture first, approaches the fine details gradually, contextualizes those details, and supports the learner along the way.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series where we’ll build upon this same example and add understanding goals to further supercharge the learning process! For now, however, I have to attend to the rest of my tray of brownies...

If you enjoyed this post, visit learningkeyworks.com for more content on how to design flexible online learning environments. If you’re ready to revamp your online course and unlock potential, sign up for our online course — Supercharge Your Online Course.

Matthew Riecken

Specializing in website and technology tool development with over 10 years of experience developing online learning environments.

kasia@learningkeyworks.com
Copyright ©2022 Learning Key, LCC. All rights reserved.