Instructional Design / Pedagogy

A Strategy for Chunking Online Course Content

Here is a detailed process for applying the concept of chunking to your online content. Some steps include tips for maximizing effectiveness. A list of best practices appears lower on this page.

Step 1: Prioritize your content

What’s going on

  • Apply at the course level
  • Helps limit content
  • Helps focus content on one central concept or topic at a time
  • Helps instructor and students see the big picture and how each chunk fits into that big picture
  • Helps establish organization of content

Steps to succeed

  • Review your official course outcomes
  • Decide what activities and assignments students will do to prove their competency in the official course outcomes
  • Review your course textbook or other materials to align “lecture” material with the course outcomes and to make sure any necessary scaffolding of knowledge is built into the lesson sequence

Step 2: Simplify and sort your content

What’s going on

  • Apply at the lesson level
  • Break it down into sub-topics
  • This is the step most directly seen as chunking
  • This helps establish the overall organization at the lesson level

Steps to succeed

  • Decide which content is necessary for each graded course activity in your lesson. For example, if you have a discussion topic that relies on students knowing topics A and B, then you will know that topics A and B can be connected and that the discussion assignment can follow. Likewise, if a written assignment is related to topic C, this content and the written assignment can be connected. Your lesson may start to take shape as follows:
    1. Students read text and watch videos for topics A and B
    2. Students post their initial post in the discussion forum (due by Wednesday)
    3. Students continue to read topic C
    4. Students work on written assignment (due by Saturday)
  • Following from the step above, determine which content will appear on a given page and how many pages you will have in your lesson. Pages can be separate web pages or they can be contained in a single web page with built-in dividers. In the case above, Topic A and B could be on a single web page, while topic C might be better presented on a separate page. Connecting content that students absorb with activities that students perform 
  • Decide what self-assessments and other activities will occur in-between topics.
  • Create and organize the necessary files and items in the LMS
  • Wherever possible, establish a consistent organization to replicate in all (or most) of your lessons. Establishing a pattern will help students understand how to approach the content each week and will help students meet your expectations.

Step 3: Organize, format, and present your content

What’s going on

  • Apply at the screen level
  • Chunking, UX (user experience), UDL, and accessibility all intersect in this step
  • This is NOT where an online course build begins. This step begins midway through the process (after tending thoroughly to the steps above) and tends to last for several weeks.

Steps to succeed

  • Use Styles, including headings, to organize the page. The use of headings is a keystone of accessible design and also a hallmark of UDL and good UX.
  • Use bulleted and/or numbered lists where possible. When created properly, these lists are accessible and also organize information visually, so it’s a true win-win. Moreover, the white space that accompanies lists creates spatial relations the brain can use as landmarks.
  • Use images and visuals to help explain complex information
  • Keep paragraphs short. About 2 to 3 sentences may be long enough. Here is more information on writing for the web.
  • Use special formatting (bold, italics, etc.) where necessary, but sparingly

Special Note: Design for Mobile

  • Keep in mind users may be viewing your content on different devices. Don’t get caught up in making everything look “perfect” on your monitor: Students will almost certainly not see your content exactly as you see it. All monitors and their settings may be different, and students may even view online content on a variety of mobile devices. Stick to the general principles listed above to achieve results that carry over universally.
  • View your own work on different screens, such as your smart phone or tablet, to see whether your content’s screen-level design is effective on a variety of devices.

Best Practices for Effective Chunking

  • Develop a logic for chunking. Explain that logic to students: they don’t see the whole picture the way you do. Provide a “map” to students. The best map in an online class is often a virtual tour of the class made using a screen capture video recorder.
  • Be consistent lesson to lesson. Establish a pattern that helps students navigate your lessons and meet your expectations.
  • Scaffold information. Use overviews, highlight key takeaways, include summaries, and other techniques to create coherence and reinforce learning from lesson to lesson.
  • Leverage the power of micro-learning. Focus on discrete topics in each chunk of your lesson for the most impactful learning.
  • Let it sink in. Use quizzes, reflections, self-assessments, and discussions to facilitate learning. Treat these as formative moments in which students can safely explore. Save the summative evaluations for after they have had a chance to learn something.

Keep in mind

You can’t completely control the path students take through yours course content. It’s not a F2F course where you dole out a sequence of activities during your class session. So build with the best of intentions and with strategies that will create meaningful and engaging learning experiences, and trust students will make the most of it.

There are tools, such as adaptive release in Blackboard, and strategies such as inline quizzes, like those one can make using H5P, or assigning staggered deadlines throughout the week, such as one deadline for beginning a discussion and a different deadline for a quiz, that can be used judiciously to assist in scaffolding and chunking of content. But it is not a good idea to rely on these tools to ration the contents of your lesson: It will almost certainly be more trouble than it’s worth, and will likely backfire.


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