Why Do We Use Chunking?

One way to minimize cognitive load is through a process called chunking. Have you ever wondered why there are seven habits? Seven laws? Seven principles? You see the number seven everywhere. I did a search on seven on Amazon.com and over a million items came up. The popularity of the number seven has nothing to do with the odds in Las Vegas. It has everything to do with a concept called chunking.

There are many theories about how to group, segment, sequence and structure information for training and learning. Most of the theories today that deal with module construction are concerned with working memory, the part of the memory that retains information while you work with it.

One of the most influential discoveries about working memory is that it is limited. In 1956 George Miller published a paper in “Psychology Review” entitled, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” in which he determined that working memory has two very important characteristics: 1) it screens information as it comes in, and 2) it has limited capacity and a limited duration. Miller is famous for saying that the most important characteristic of working memory is that it is limited. One way to increase working memory, therefore, is to “chunk” the information. Chunking is another name for grouping.

So what does all this mean to you when you are creating screens for training and learning? It is simple. If you make the information on each screen too long, confusing or difficult, the learners will just disregard it. It also means that one way to retain information in working memory is to repeat it again and again. Transferring the information to long-term memory can be achieved by rehearsal and by connecting to information via schemas that are already there. Without rehearsal, working memory can hold only five to nine items for no more than 10 to 20 seconds. The more learners have to think about what they are learning, the smaller, more meaningful and shorter the chunks should be. Another way is to have mental tasks that can be performed automatically or without thinking about them.

 

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