Chunk It Out – Taking Bites Out Of Complex Topics

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”-Commanly Attributed to Albert Einstein

The heart of instructional design is simplifying the complex by:

  • breaking down (chunking) concepts, tasks, or processes into manageable learning bites,
  • presenting them logically, and
  • making them relevant to the learner.

In instructional design, this is generally referred to as chunking. An easy-to-remember example of chunking is a U.S. phone number, such as 973-820-5846. Notice that the number series is broken down into groups of three and four numbers. Holding more than four items in working memory is a challenge (and more than seven is impossible for most of us). An unchecked series such as 1973820846 is much harder to remember. 

Consider a familiar scenario, such as a trip to the grocery store in which you need milk, eggs, and bread. These three items are simple to remember, I mostly will remember all of them.

Now on the way, imagine your son calls and asks for toasted Cheese-It duo pack, and Mountain Dew gamer fuel blue. “OK. I got it.”

Then your spouse calls to remind you to get the grain-free wet dog food. Still good?

You then remember the dinner party you’re hosting tomorrow night, and may as well pick up a dessert, but isn’t one of them a diabetic, or maybe they are lactose intolerant?

You make a stop to fill up your car with gas, then hit the grocery store, also go to the pet store for the special dog food, and come home forgetting bread and somehow ending up with free-range almond milk…is that even a thing? 

An easy way to chunk this information is to organize the items by person, even mentally:

For me – milk, eggs, bread

For dog – grain-free food

For son – Mountain Dew Blue and Cheese-Its

For Dinner-party – nothing, until you confirm their dietary restrictions 

Now we have four chunks of information to remember, each with one to three items.

A chunk is a small unit of information organized in logical groups to make the information easier to understand and retain.

The next step in this process is determining organizing principles to arrange these chunks in a way that facilitates learning and moves the critical content into long-term memory. In the shopping list example, we simply divided the information into categories that made sense – by who requested the item. Other common organizing principles include:

  • Categories, Subjects, Topics, and Sub-topics
  • Higher level concepts to specifics
  • Order of operations

Let’s take a meatier subject, for example, Total Quality Management (TQM).

There are lots of definitions for what TQM is of varying degrees of quality and verbosity, but we can safely say that:

TQM is a philosophy in which long-term business success is achieved by empowering all employees to make continuous quality improvements focused on increasing customer satisfaction.

In this example, the level organizing principle starts with the concept, then can move into areas such as: 

  • How does TQM lead to increased customer satisfaction?
  1. History
  2. Studies
  3. Examples
  • What are the primary elements of TQM? 
  • What does TQM mean for my role in the organization?
  1. Responsibilities and accountability
  • How is TQM implemented?
  1. Processes
  2. Corrective actions
  3. Documentation

Within this general strategy of moving from high-level concepts to specific examples, you may utilize different organizing principles. For example, when providing instruction on the implementation of TQM, you would organize processes and the steps they contain in the order in which they are performed.

Relevance to the learner

The last part of this I’ve covered in other blog posts, but the short of it is, only deliver information that is relevant to the learner. In this example, while everyone needs to understand the concept of TQM, how it applies, and the examples given will differ depending on the learner’s role in the organization. The application of TQM for someone in supply chain management differs from how an accountant or an HR professional would implement it, but everyone must understand the concept and its principles. 


  • Break down complex information into smaller chunks.
  • Organize these chunks from concepts to specific examples, by categories subjects, and topic, and/or by order of operation.  
  • Make the content relevant to the job function of the learner. 

In this posting, we talked a lot about chunking and organizing information to make it easier to digest. In our next article, we discuss how to move information from working to long-term memory. 

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